Using a Paralegal to Do Your Divorce

Using a Paralegal to Do Your Divorce

Karen Olson

Ed: Welcome to  This is Ed.

Christina:  This is Christina.  Ed and I are the creators of the website, California edition.

Christina:  During today’s podcast, we are going to talk about the pros and cons of using a paralegal to do your divorce versus hiring a lawyer or trying to do a divorce on your own.   Our guest is Karen Olson, who is a registered “Legal Document Assistant” with the State of California.  Karen is also the owner of the business, “Legal Pro Document Assistance”, which is located in Danville, California.  Thanks for appearing today, Karen.

Karen:  Thanks for having me as your first guest.

Christina:  Karen, please tell us a bit about your legal background.

Karen:  I was employed by the Superior Court of California, in Contra Costa County, for 26 years before retiring.  During the last 20 years of my career with the court, I specialized as a family law legal tech.  I’ve trained and given seminars to judges, attorneys, and court staff on the topics of divorce, restraining orders, and family law procedures.

Ed:  As a family law legal tech, what were some of the things you typically did in connection with your job with the court?

Ed:  After you retired from working at the court, did you become a Legal Document Assistant and start your own business?

Karen:  Yes.

Ed:  Tell us a little bit about your business.

Karen:  The name of the business is “Legal Pro Document Assistance”. I help people that can’t afford to hire a lawyer or don’t want to hire a lawyer, with their paperwork.  I prepare paperwork and help people navigate their way through the court system.  Most of the paperwork I deal with consists of court forms, but I also help with the preparation of Marital Settlement Agreements, stipulations, and other legal documents.  My focus is on family law.  I mainly help people with divorces, legal separations, and domestic violence restraining orders.  I also help with paperwork to modify custody, child support, and spousal support orders.  I’m also a notary.

Christina:  You are a “Legal Document Assistant”, which is a specific occupation allowed under California law.  What is the difference between a “Legal Document Assistant”, such as yourself, and a paralegal?

Karen:  There is a lot of confusion over about this issue.  The occupation of being a “Legal Document Assistant” came into existence in the year 2000, when the California state legislature passed a law setting forth the requirement for becoming a registered “Legal Document Assistant”.  Before the year 2000, Legal Document Assistants didn’t exist.  We just had paralegals.  Today, Paralegals and Legal Document Assistants have very similar educational backgrounds and do similar work.  The distinction between the two has to do with whether or not you are working directly for an attorney.  Paralegals work directly for attorneys while Legal Document Assistants work independently.  Most of the non-lawyers out there that operate their own business helping people prepare court forms and other legal documents are Legal Document Assistants and not paralegals, but just about everyone still calls them paralegals.

Ed:  What are the requirements in California to become a registered Legal Document Assistant?

Karen:  It depends on the level of your education.  If you only have a high school diploma or GED, then you have to have two years of law-related experience under the supervision of an attorney.  If you have a bachelor’s degree, you only need one year of law-related experience under the supervision of an attorney.  Another way to satisfy the educational requirements to become a registered Legal Document Assistant is to complete a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association.

Ed:  In order to be a registered Legal Document Assistant with the State of California, are you also required to post a bond for the protection of your customers?

Karen:  Yes.  Legal Document Assistants are required by law to be bonded in the county where they have their principal place of business, with the bond being in the amount of $25,000.

 Christina:  As a Legal Document Assistant, what kinds of services can you legally provide?

Karen: 1)  We can prepare our customer’s legal documents under the direction of our customers; 2) We can file our customer’s legal documents with the courts; and 3) we can provide our customers with legal materials that have been published or approved by a lawyer.

Christina:  Can you give legal advice to your customers?

Karen: No.

Christina:  Can you go to court and participate during trials or other hearings with your customers?

Karen:  No.  We are not lawyers.  If you want someone to go to court hearings with you, you’ll need to hire a lawyer.

Ed:  Do Legal Document Assistants only handle family law paperwork?

Karen:  Legal Document Assistants work with all kinds of legal paperwork.  They can help with bankruptcies, unlawful detainer actions, civil harassment cases, guardianships, Wills, deeds, and a wide range of other legal matters.

Ed:  Why would someone use a Legal Document Assistant rather than hiring a lawyer?

Karen:  The main reason is cost.  Most divorce lawyers are charging between $350 and $550 per hour.  It’s not just the hourly rate, there is also the retainer.  Most divorce lawyers want $5,000 to $10,000, and sometimes a lot more, just to take your case.  The retainer isn’t the total cost of the case. The retainer is just to get started. At $400 per hour, a $10,000 retainer will be burned up in 25 hours.  Most contested divorce cases take a lot more than 25 hours of a lawyer’s time.

Christina:  How do Legal Document Assistants bill their customers – is there an hourly rate and a retainer or is there some other system?

Karen:  Different Legal Document Assistants bill in different ways.  I can’t speak to how others charge their customers, but I can say how I bill people that hire me.

Christina: Are there other reasons besides the cost that may cause a person to decide to go to a Legal Document Assistant rather than a lawyer?

Karen:  There are lots of reasons why people choose someone like me rather than a lawyer.  Some people believe that lawyers make a bad situation even worse by escalating conflict.  Many of my customers would much rather reach a settlement on their own and then go to a Legal Document Assistant such as myself to prepare the paperwork and file everything with the court.

Ed:  How do you decide if you should hire a lawyer or go with a Legal Document Assistant?

Karen:  If you don’t have the money to hire a lawyer, you may not have any choice.  If you have the ability to hire a lawyer, then you need to consider a lot of factors before deciding to go with a Legal Document Assistant.  How valuable are the rights that are involved in your case?  Was it a short marriage, with no children, little property, and both parties earning similar incomes?  If so, you probably don’t need a lawyer.  However, if you have a long term marriage, with children, valuable assets, including retirement assets, and some conflict between the parties, then you should be talking to a lawyer.  You need to carefully weigh the risks and advantages before making a decision about whether or not to go with a lawyer.

Christina: There are lots of do-it-yourself divorce books out there.  Why wouldn’t I just buy one of those books and skip the expense of both the lawyer and the Legal Document Assistant?

Karen:  If you look at those DIY divorce books, they are typically 300 to 500 pages long and they are very confusing.  People don’t have the time to read those books and figure everything out.  The divorce process is just too complicated.  There are too many forms and too many legal procedures.  People that try the DIY divorce books tend to fill out their forms wrong, use the wrong forms, or forget a required form.  A lot of people that use the DIY divorce books end up standing in line for hours at the court clerk’s window only to find out your paperwork is wrong or incomplete and then they have to go home and to try to figure out how to do it right.  People do that a couple of times and then decide it’s worth paying a Legal Document Assistant or even a lawyer.

Ed:  What about

Karen: is a great option.  The tutorial videos are easy to understand and since the videos and the fillable court forms are free, the website is a much better alternative than the do-it-yourself divorce books.

Ed:  After you retired from your job with the Superior Court, why did you decide to open your own business as Legal Document Assistant?

Christina:  Can you describe what a typical day is like for you?

Ed:  What are some of the challenges you face in your job?

Christina:  Do you enjoy being a Legal Document Assistant?

Ed:  Have you ever considered becoming a lawyer?

Christina:  What hours do you typically work – is it strictly 9 to 5 Monday through Friday or do you meet with your customers in the evenings and/or weekends?

Ed:  Communications between a lawyer and a client are confidential.  By law, those communications are privileged and can’t be disclosed without the client’s consent.  What about communications between a Legal Document Assistant and a customer – are those communications confidential?

Karen:  I always keep communications between my customers and myself confidential.  However, there is nothing like an attorney/client privilege.  If you have a communication with your lawyer, that communication has a special privilege that is protected by law from being disclosed.  That sort of privilege does not exist for communications with a Legal Document Assistant.  However, I’ve never had anyone try to subpoena me to trial and try to force me to disclose a communication between a client and myself.

Christina:  If I want to hire a Legal Document Assistant, how do I find one and how do I decide if the person knows what they are doing?

Karen: One option is to get a referral from the California Association of Legal Document Assistants.  Go to their website and their directory will list some of the Legal Document Assistants in your county.  Another option is to call a family law lawyer in your area, explain that you can’t afford an attorney, and ask for a referral to a good paralegal or Legal Document Assistant.  Again, although paralegals and Legal Document Assistants are technically different, many people, including lawyers, still refer to Legal Document Assistants as paralegals.  Another approach is to Google, “Legal Document Assistant near me” and then interview several people.  Find someone that has at least five years experience and someone that feels like a good fit.

Ed:  Do you ever use our website in connection with your business?

Karen:  The website is a great resource for many of my customers.  The “Getting Educated” video series is a fantastic tool for learning all about child custody, child support, and alimony, as well as how to divide assets and debts, including retirement assets, the family home, credit card debts and student loans.  Watching those videos and getting a solid foundation on the law is so important before you try to negotiate a settlement agreement with your spouse.

Christina:  What happens if you are helping someone with the paperwork for a case that, at least initially, seems to be an uncontested divorce, but things blow up and the case turns into a big fight that is going to require multiple court hearings and emergency court orders?

Karen:  If that happens, then I can refer my customer to a local divorce lawyer that I know is good, such as Christina.  If they can’t afford a lawyer, I’d tell them about the website and suggest they watch the videos on how to handle a contested divorce.

Christina:  If people listening to this podcast want to contact you and use your services, how do they get in touch with you?

Karen:  Google the name of my business, “Legal Pro Document Assistance” or Google my name and you should be able to find my website.

Christina:  Karen, thank you once again for being on our podcast.

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