California State Bar Considering Allowing Lay Paraprofessionals to Practice Law in Certain Areas

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The California State Bar Paraprofessional Program Working Group (CPPWG) is seeking public comments on a proposal to allow non-lawyer paraprofessionals to practice law in a limited capacity. They will only be authorized to advise and represent clients in limited landlord-tenant, family law, debt collection and criminal law cases.

The aim is to provide a legal professional at a lower cost to deal with issues that primarily concern low-income people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. For the most part, paraprofessionals will be regulated and disciplined like lawyers to ensure they act ethically and competently. They will need some level of education, although this is likely to be cheaper than attending a traditional three-year law school.

However, there is opposition to the proposal, mostly from practicing lawyers. They criticized the need for the paraprofessional program as well as numerous proposals and recommendations.

A proposal would allow paraprofessionals to own up to 49% of a law firm with one lawyer. The goal is to allow the two to work together. But workarounds can get the paraprofessional to have the majority vote. For example, the paraprofessional may recruit several attorneys who each own a small percentage of the firm. The paraprofessional could take steps to ensure that one of these lawyers will vote the same way as the paraprofessional, thereby crowding out minority partners. Disgruntled lawyers could leave, which could throw the law firm into chaos and affect existing cases.

Or what if one of the lawyers suddenly dies or becomes ineligible to practice? The paraprofessional could end up being the majority owner unless the affected lawyer’s interest in the firm is automatically passed on to other associate lawyers.

Finally, co-ownership is not mandatory for professionals to work together. In fact, without the ownership issues, all parties can separate without having to go through the dissolution process.

Another proposal would allow lawyers and paraprofessionals in the same firm to share fees. But the fees cannot be shared if they work for different companies. Opponents argue that this will create the classic situation where the lawyer’s independent professional judgment will be affected due to financial incentives. Additionally, if the lawyer practices in an excluded area such as immigration, paraprofessionals can get a share of the profits from activities in areas of the law where they are not licensed to practice.

It should be noted that the working group recommended excluding immigration law because undocumented migrants are generally people of limited means and will have difficulty hiring a lawyer to represent them in deportation proceedings. The reason given for the exclusion was that the state did not have jurisdiction to authorize representation in federal courts. But letting paraprofessionals practice could raise the ire of the immigration bar, which can seriously dent the access to justice narrative. There are many stories of unauthorized notaries who run night operations, charge high fees but get little or no results. So they know firsthand the costly and possibly irreparable consequences of letting anyone represent vulnerable immigrants.

It is also strange that the task force does not recommend imposing fee caps on paraprofessionals, especially since the goal is to improve access to justice. They argue that imposing fee caps would be unfair, that market forces would keep prices affordable, discourage people from becoming paraprofessionals, and could negatively impact the financial viability of the profession.

The market forces argument is questionable because increasing the supply of legal professionals does not guarantee lower prices. There are many law schools in California of varying shapes and sizes, but an increase in the number of practicing attorneys in the state (especially in light of recently lowered bar passing scores) has not improved the problem of access to justice. They probably assume that paraprofessionals would charge less than a comparable lawyer. While this may be the case, the paraprofessional will ultimately charge what their clients are willing to pay, even if their fees match those of attorneys.

In addition, paraprofessionals will most likely run their own practice or partner with lawyers or other paraprofessionals. In these situations, they will have to pay overhead to maintain the business. It may also affect the price they charge for their services and does not necessarily translate into lower costs for customers.

One of the dissenting members of the working group questioned the extent of the problem of access to justice. He claimed that the access to justice report on which the group relies points out that two-thirds of people with legal problems surveyed have made no attempt to find a lawyer. And it’s unclear whether the remaining third party who tried to find a lawyer was able to secure one. This suggests that there may be a “knowledge deficit” rather than a “justice deficit” because the public is unaware of all the legal resources available to them.

California already has a number of professional programs where non-lawyers can assist clients in certain areas, so the state bar and government should make an effort to inform the public of these additional resources. Additionally, there are non-accredited law schools that charge less tuition than ABA-accredited schools. Graduates of these schools, who likely have much lower student debt, should be able to charge lower prices. Unfortunately, since most graduates of these schools are unable to pass the bar exam on the first try, there should be an effort to help prepare for the bar exam.

Finally, some positive conclusions from the CPPWG proposals should be noted. First, the training requirement for paraprofessionals is shorter and more focused. Law schools should consider adopting a similar model for those not interested in a traditional three-year program. If the group is serious about improving access to justice by lowering the educational barrier to entry, it should lobby the ABA’s Legal Education Section to enact changes that would reduce the overall cost from law school by reducing the course load or replacing work experience with college credit. . Second, paraprofessionals must master trauma-informed representation, which will teach them how to effectively deal with clients who are experiencing traumatic situations. A similar course should be offered to lawyers as an CLE session or as an elective at a law school.

The CPPWG’s proposal to allow paraprofessionals to practice law in limited cases is another attempt to improve access to justice. But it appears the task force is making the dubious assumption that paraprofessionals will charge less than lawyers and with a “doing something is better than doing nothing” attitude. A better solution might be to strive to improve what already exists. For example, the expanded use of telephone and video conferencing due to COVID-19 could allow lawyers to operate at lower cost and pass the savings on to their clients. In addition, some matters should be simplified or not require a court appearance. Or the courts can negotiate payment plans for uncontested debt cases. All of these options should be considered before creating an expensive professional program that may end up only appealing to a few people.


Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolves tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people who have large student loans. He can be contacted by email at stevenchungatl@gmail.com. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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