Sacramento County Public Law Library
Podcast: Legal Document Assistants
Learn more about Legal Document Assistants, what they do and what they don't do, the Business & Professions code that governs LDAs and more.
For Immediate Release
Les Goldberg, APR
California group promotes easy, more cost-effective
alternative to solving many legal problems
Feb. 5, 2014 – Now is the time that we are all supposed to make some New Year resolutions and maybe some of you went so far as to declare that you would be filing for bankruptcy, participating in a class-action lawsuit or seeking custody of your children. Those kinds of resolutions are usually the first to be broken when attorney and court fees rear their ugly heads – not to mention the time and hassle of losing time at your jobs.
For years, the only way for people to access the court system was through an attorney or law office-appointed paralegal who are trained and authorized to fill out, file and serve the required and numerous court forms.
Not anymore. Today, in California and a handful of states, there is an alternative – the legal document assistant, or LDA.
According to Ian Duncan, president of the California Association of Legal Document Assistants (CALDA), LDAs “provide invaluable assistance with routine legal tasks, such as typing and filing the paperwork for uncontested divorces, bankruptcies, wills, custody modifications, legal name changes, business incorporations and many other types of form-driven matters.”
Duncan emphasized that LDAs are a cost-effective resource for the middle class -- those who do not qualify for free services from legal aide societies and can’t afford the higher-priced attorneys. He said that they are often incorrectly referred to as “independent paralegals” or “freelance paralegals.” However, 15 years ago California law established legal document preparation as a profession with practitioners as formal LDAs.
He noted that it is important to understand the differences between an LDA and a paralegal. Also, neither paralegals nor LDAs are permitted to engage in the practice of law, offer legal advice or serve as a legal representative in the courts. Additionally, LDAs can’t select or interpret legal forms.
While many LDAs have paralegal education and experience, in California they are not the same as paralegals. Paralegals are not permitted to provide services directly to the consumer, and may only be employed by an attorney, law firm, corporation, government agency or other entity.
LDAs, who are registered, bonded and eligible for CALDA membership, can be hired directly by consumers to provide self-help assistance in legal matters by preparing and processing the necessary legal documents, Duncan added.
For instance, a woman living in the Los Angeles area recently was in the process of completing her divorce from her abusive husband. After filing for a restraining order, and getting help with filing the petition and summons at a self-help center, she remained confused about how to complete the necessary documents to finalize the divorce. A friend referred her to a local LDA, Jolene Dashut of Studio City, who quickly filled out and filed all the documents while explaining the remaining procedure to her. Dashut said her client told her “it was the best money she’d ever spent.”
In a case involving estate planning, Michelle Wehrli, who is both an LDA and paralegal, processed a complicated probate avoidance plan for a client and charged under $1,200. An attorney would charge a minimum $3,000 for a basic plan without the funding of the trust, she said.
According to Duncan, “in California 80 percent of the people who need legal help are self-represented. That means the need for affordable legal access no longer applies to low income individuals, but now reaches into the middle class, particularly as the baby boomer generation ages and requires help with wills, probate and other legal issues. The impact on people’s lives is huge and it is going to put unprecedented stress on the fund-strapped court system.”
“This challenging economy and other factors merging together at the same time have created a unique environment for the legal document assistant profession,” said Kerry Spence Suendermann, one of the first certified LDAs in California. “The LDA is trained to prepare legal documents, with or without an attorney, at a fraction of the cost of the old way of hiring only an attorney. The new adage should be ‘call your LDA first’.”
The California Association of Legal Document Assistants (CALDA) is a non-profit organization that promotes the use of Legal Document Assistant services to the public while encouraging high standards of ethical and professional conduct among its members and the entire LDA profession. It is dedicated to providing continuing legal education to members and to advocating the benefits of LDA services throughout California’s legal system. Further information about CALDA can be obtained by calling (916) 791-9100 or visiting its website, www.calda.org.