State Bar’s Paraprofessional Proposal Returns from Public Comment; Revisions Likely Amid Opposition

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By Andrea Lavelle

On January 12, 2022, the 110 day public comment period ended for the State Bar’s California Paraprofessional Program Working Group’s (CPPWG) report and recommendations. After receiving more than 2,000 comments from 1,279 individuals and organizations, the Bar presented the comment data in publicly available tables and charts. Of 1235 comments from individuals, 73% came from attorneys, who overwhelmingly commented against the proposal at 90%. Three percent of attorneys commented that they would “support if [the proposal was] modified,” and 6% commented in support. Conversely, non-attorneys were largely in favor of the proposal, with 78% commenting in support, 14% in opposition, and an additional 7% in “support if modified.” The Bar also received 47 comments from organizations. The plurality of comments from organizations in support of the proposal was from consumer advocacy organizations, followed by academic and paralegal/Legal Document Assistant membership groups. The majority of comments in opposition were from attorney membership groups, followed by legal services organizations.

The significant opposition has driven political pressure on the State Bar from the legislature. In December 2021, the Chairs of the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees wrote a letter to State Bar leaders, expressing concern that by continuing regulatory reform efforts like the Closing the Justice Gap Working Group and CPPWG, the Bar is “diverting its attention” from “its core mission of protecting the public by correcting the delays and defects in the attorney discipline system.” In response, State Bar Board of Trustees Chair Ruben Duran acknowledged the Bar’s “statutory mission to protect the public” and the possibility that “disbanding or suspending” the efforts of the Closing the Justice Gap Working Group would be “the logical result of [the legislators’] concerns.” Although Duran did not mention the Paraprofessional Program Working Group, he referenced the State Bar’s California Justice Gap Study, which found that 55% of Californians experienced at least one civil legal problem in their household, but 85% received no legal assistance or inadequate legal assistance. The Paraprofessional Program Working Group and report were created to address this justice gap. [See previous reporting]

The CPPWG is scheduled to meet on March 4, 2022, to review the public comment and discuss staff recommendations on potential amendments to its final report in light of the comments received. Specifically, staff recommends that the Working Group vote to modify the following recommendations, which drew the highest levels of opposition: 1) Rule 5.4: eliminate the ability of lawyers and paraprofessionals to co-own law firms; 2) Rule 1.5.1: eliminate the ability of lawyers and paraprofessionals to share fees; 3) In-court representation: modify to reflect responsive representation only and apply to all practice areas; and 4) Fee caps: modify to indicate that fee caps should be established wherever feasible.

Several steps still must occur before any implementation of a paraprofessional license would occur. After the CPPWG votes on any modifications and considers further policy matters, if necessary, it will present its final proposal to the Board of Trustees. If the Board votes in approval, the plan will go to the California Supreme Court and legislature for final approval, where it could face additional amendments amid significant political pressure.

The March 4 meeting will take place at 10:00 am via zoom.

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