Don't be Left Out in the Cold!

What You Need to Know BEFORE Hiring an LDA

by: Sheree Surber, LDA, Contract Paralegal & Notary Public August 4, 2014

Working with a Legal Document Assistant (LDA) on your legal matter can be one of the best decisions you can make - saving you time, money and that last bit of sanity you may otherwise lose. But, as in any profession, there are the good, the bad and the down-right dirty. After a decade of working in Family Law (both in law firms and in my own business), I've heard countless horror stories from clients who have been taken advantage of by LDAs, commonly referred to as "Paralegals." Although there are never any guarantees when hiring any legal professional - attorney, legal document assistant or otherwise - there are some simple steps you can take and questions you can ask to help protect yourself from being taken advantage of. The following isn't meant to discourage you from using the valuable services many LDAs provide; rather, it's to make you aware of what you should look for and ask before making a decision as to who is best suited to handle your case.

8 Simple Steps to Help You Make the Right Decision for YOU:

1. If you mistakenly asked the LDA if he/she was a "paralegal," did he/she explain the difference to you? Legally, the LDA cannot hold him/herself out to be a "paralegal" when doing work for the public - although many do simply because more people are familiar with the term "paralegal" than "Legal Document Assistant." That being said, an LDA CAN also be a paralegal, but only when working directly under the supervision of an attorney (usually in the context of contract work). Many people, including legal professionals, use the terms interchangeably, but a reputable LDA should explain the difference to you should the question arise.

2. Ask for the LDA's registration number. Every LDA MUST be registered in at least one County and renew his/her registration(s) every two years. Absent a current registration, he/she can't assist the public for monetary compensation. Every LDA should be able to present you with his/her registration number/card. It's important to note that simply holding an LDA registration doesn't guarantee the LDA's level of experience, but not being registered does mean he/she is operating illegally and you should seek assistance elsewhere.

3. Don't be afraid to ask about the LDA's experience. You wouldn't hire an attorney to handle your divorce who has only tried medical malpractice cases. So, why would it be any different when hiring an LDA? Not every LDA has the same experience level as the next. A reputable LDA will refer you to someone better suited to assist you if he/she lacks the ability to properly do the job. Our office routinely provides prospective clients with referrals to other LDAs and attorneys who can better meet their needs if their case falls outside of our areas of expertise. To us, it's more important for you to get the help you need than for us to put another check in the bank.

4. Ask the LDA about his/her office policy regarding assisting the opposing party. LDAs aren't bound by the same laws as attorneys when it comes to conflicts of interest. An LDA is generally classified as a "typing service" and can therefore assist either or both parties regardless of whether or not he/she has already provided services to the other side. In our office, we take client loyalty very seriously and will NOT provide services for the opposing party unless the client requests those services be performed or they jointly hire our office in an uncontested matter. In short, we treat your case the way we would expect our cases to be handled.

5. When you met with the LDA, did he/she provide you with a Notice to Consumer clearly stating he/she is not an attorney. This is not optional. Every LDA is required by law to provide prospective clients with this form and obtain the client's signature prior to performing any services. In our office, clients are provided with this form at the time they are asked to complete the Client Intake Form. This ensures the client is fully aware of the scope of services we provide before meeting with the LDA or any services being performed.

6. Upon hiring the LDA, were you provided with a Fee Agreement clearly stating how you would be charged/billed and the services the LDA would perform? Again, this is not optional. Each client must execute a Fee Agreement that conforms to state law. The LDA must also provide you with a fully executed copy for your records. Be very wary of the LDA who doesn't follow these steps or who refuses/fails to provide you with a copy for your records.

7. Does the LDA have a primary place of business? Whether the LDA works from home or rents office space, it is important to know where his/her principal place of business is located. Over the years, I've heard numerous horror stories from clients who handed over hundreds of dollars to an "LDA" in Starbucks never to see them again. Once they have your money and are gone, tracking them down can be extremely time consuming and sometimes impossible.

8. Ask the LDA if he/she has a list of attorneys they refer clients to in the event it becomes necessary. Again, a good LDA will have contacts within the legal community to whom they often refer clients. Hopefully, hiring an attorney won't become necessary in your case, but it's always important to know your options and to have a "Plan B" in the event it does become necessary. An LDA who can't or won't refer you to an attorney may not be familiar with that area of law or established within the legal community.

I am not an attorney and Central Valley Self-Help, Inc. is not a law firm. I can only provide you with self-help services at your specific direction.