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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : On the Case of Paralegals : They Provide a Lower-Cost Alternative but 'Legal Technicians' Are Still the Targets of Lawyers and Bar Associations


It wasn't that long ago, perhaps a little more than a decade, that Lois Isenberg used to keep her mouth shut at parties. Not about everything, just about what she did for a living. It seemed that whenever she mentioned that she was an independent paralegal, an attorney would step forward and begin a nasty verbal assault.

"Up until the 1980s, it was always an underground movement," Isenberg said. "We had to be quite circumspect about what we did."

Isenberg may still be cautious, but she is no longer so circumspect. As president of the California Assn. of Independent Paralegals (CAIP), and head of a mid-Wilshire paralegal firm, Isenberg fronts a growing movement to grant independent paralegals greater authority to provide legal services. She has faced powerful opposition from local, county and state bar associations, which view her and her compatriots as engaged in the unauthorized practice of law and a threat to business, and which have prosecuted independent paralegals in the past.

To some attorneys, Isenberg and her colleagues are better suited to their traditional roles of typing or doing research under the supervision of lawyers, where the paralegals don't run the risk of overextending their legal expertise and where they don't pose an an economic threat to them.

Yet despite such opposition, independent paralegals--or "legal technicians," as they are also called--are flourishing, and in the past decade have greatly expanded their portfolio and presence.

In 1985, paralegals--both independent ones and those who work for lawyers--were projected by the U.S. Department of Labor to make up the nation's fastest-growing profession. Today, there are more than 3,000 independent paralegals statewide, in addition to the more than 10,000 traditional paralegals working in law firms. And whereas 20 years ago few Californians got divorced or declared bankruptcy without lawyers, 70% of divorces and bankruptcies in some smaller counties are now filed without attorneys.


"It made great sense to do it this way," said Culver City financial planner Gael Kennedy, who used independent paralegals for two divorces. "(The divorces) were just a matter of, 'How do you do the paperwork?' "

Kathy Love, a Rancho Cucamonga fund-raising executive who with her husband arranged an adoption, a child custody case and his divorce from a previous spouse through paralegals, agreed. "As long as you don't try to do something complicated, you really don't need legal representation."

Much of the newfound prominence in the use and number of independent paralegals has been fueled by one simple factor: economics. At $150 an hour and up, most people find lawyers' fees out of reach and overpriced for simple legal needs such as divorces, landlord-tenant disputes, guardianships and immigration matters.

When a client knows what he or she wants, Isenberg said, such matters usually can be resolved by having an independent paralegal type and file the proper documents and then letting the legal system take its course, often for about one-third the cost of a lawyer. According to Kennedy, her divorces cost one-fifth of what they would have if she used attorneys. Love's paralegal fees for all three services totaled about $700.

"You can't get an attorney for less than $150 an hour and with a $2,000 retainer, you can use that up overnight," said Richard Lubetzky, a Beverly Hills attorney and a director of CalJustice, a nonprofit consumer legal reform association.

For Isenberg, the role of paralegal activist is not one she had envisioned when she entered the profession in 1973. A producer of educational films, Isenberg was asked to lend her marketing skills to a paralegal opening a divorce firm in Santa Monica. But after a week, Isenberg said, the paralegal "got up from her desk, walked to the door and said, 'I don't want to do this. This business is yours.' "

Isenberg, who was between films, grabbed at the chance to enter the emerging profession. After learning the basics of divorce form preparation from attorneys and other paralegals, she opened a business in her Los Angeles home, operating for several years on referrals. In 1980, Isenberg moved to her present offices on Wilshire Boulevard, but still kept a low profile, fearing reprisals from local and state bar associations, which have prosecuted paralegals for "UPL," or unfair practice of law.

"I had a little ad in the Yellow Pages and that was it," Isenberg said. "It was difficult at that time to be doing what I did."

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