Paralegal’s Failure to Comply with Regulation Results in Serious Consequences

According to an article in the Los Angeles Paralegal Reporter (originally printed in the Los Angeles Daily Journal) by Stacey Hunt and Michael R. Jencks, attorneys and paralegals need to sit up and take notice of three recent decisions out of the Eastern District of California.  These cases are some of the first in the state to deny or reduce paralegal fees for the paralegals’ failure to comply with the requirements of Bus. & Prof. Code Section 6450, et seq.

In order for a person to use the paralegal or legal assistant title, he/she must possess one of the following: (1) a certificate of completion of a paralegal program approved by the ABA or (2) a certificate of completion from a paralegal program or a degree from a postsecondary institution that requires the successful completion of at least 24 semester units or equivalent in law-related courses or (3) a baccalaureate or higher degree, plus a minimum of one year of law-related experience under the supervision of an attorney who has practiced in California for at least three years.  Further, paralegals must complete mandatory continuing legal education of 4 credits of ethics and 4 credits of law-related topics every two years.

Attorneys who are not ensuring that the paralegals they hire are qualified under the code are exposing themselves to potentially serious financial and ethicial consequences.  The cases, Sanford v. GMRI, Inc. dba Red Lobster, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27581, White v. GMRI, Inc. dba Red Lobster, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2059 and Martinez v. G. Maroni Col., dba Church’s Chicken #948, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 32366 each billed substantial fees for paralegal work.  In each case, the court ruled the paralegal’s were not qualified under the provisions of Section 6450.  Fees were either denied or substantially reduced.

Further, the court drew a distinction in both the Sanford and White cases, between paralegals as being qualified under the law and legal assistants, which the court believed were not qualified.  In fact, Bus. & Prof Code Section 6454 provides that "paralegal" and "legal assistant" are synonymous terms.  Law firms should not bestow the legal assistant title on secretaries or other persons who are not compliant with Section 6450.

California is not the only state to require regulation of paralegals.  At least 12 states so far have either moved toward regulation or are seriously considering regulating paralegals.  Canada has recently undergone even a stricter passing of regulation.

While there are no enforcement agencies for paralegals, this indirect enforcement of Section 6450 is a strong indication that you do not want to be put into a position of having to write off a large amount of paralegal fees billed because you were unable to recover them from an opposing party.  Even worse, would be exposing yourself to ethical issues by misrepresenting to a client that you are qualified as a paralegal and billing yourself as such when, in fact, you are not.