Paralegals in California Must Take More Ethics Courses Than Attorneys

In addition to other MCLE (mandatory continued legal education) courses, attorneys complying with California State Bar standards must complete four hours’ worth of legal ethics courses every three years. A paralegal, on the other hand, must meet this same four-hour requirement every two years. When a California attorney’s professional education throughout a lifetime is compared side-by-side to that of a California paralegal, the paralegal will have accrued more courses on legal ethics than the attorney. Why is that the case?

It is also worth noting that national certifying organizations, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), are less demanding of paralegals than the State Bar of California. NALA requires only one hour of legal ethics education per year and NFPA requires just 0.5 hours per year, when the requirements are simplified. The California State Bar requires 2 hours a year. Once again, what is the driving force behind these heightened requirements?

Licenses & Limitations

The State Bar of California might be more demanding of paralegals mainly due to the fact that paralegals are not licensed directly by the state. This lack of oversight from a state-controlled agency could potentially give rise to more problems in the future. By constantly reminding paralegals of legal ethics through MCLE courses, a paralegal could feel more deterred to ever stray from what is acceptable while “no one is looking.”

Paralegals must also never officially practice law, or carry out the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL). Essentially, any behavior or practice that one would expect solely from an attorney – such as deciding on fees for legal services or just giving legal advice – can constitute UPL, which is both a practice violation and a crime. Many incidents of UPL reported to State Bars are inadvertent, caused by forgetfulness or a misunderstanding of acceptable practices. Through MCLE courses taken each year, the chances of an accident, or intentional, UPL violation should be diminished. Additionally, an attorney’s practice and license can be jeopardized if his or her paralegal commits this ethical offense; supervising lawyers should make an honest effort to ensure their paralegals are indeed completing necessary legal ethics courses, if only for the sake of their own reputations.

Daniel B. Pleasant, ACP, CAS of Rouda Feder Tietjen & McGuinn is a writer and editor with extensive knowledge regarding legalities and ethics. He has recently written a full article regarding the ethics of being a paralegal compared to that of an attorney. For more information, contact our law office today.