She Puts Her Name in the Papers, By Darla Martin Tucker, The Business Press, November 6, 2006
In 2004, an anxious young husband and father approached Just Document Preparation in Riverside to help him file a domestic violence restraining order against his wife. He wanted to protect himself and his young daughter from his wife’s abuse stemming from her refusal to take medication for schizophrenia. Annette Gomez, owner of the firm, interviewed the client. An assistant quickly typed up the court papers, filing them within 24 hours. He got temporary sole custody of his child, Gomez said.
Gomez is bonded and registered as a legal document assistant in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.For 10 years, she has prepared legal documents for pro per litigants at her Just Document Preparation. Gomez was re-elected secretary of the California Association of Legal Document Assistants during the organization’s annual conference Oct. 28-29 at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario. She is interim president of the association’s Inland Empire chapter. Gomez and two assistants type up court documents for clients who represent themselves in bankruptcies, living trusts, divorces, custody cases, adoptions, name changes, wills and other matters. The clients fill out questionnaires related to the necessary documents and Just Document staff transcribes the information into legal papers.
Gomez and her staff are prohibited by law from providing legal advice or opinion, or even from helping clients choose the correct forms needed in their case. They have to be able to sit down and tell us what they want, she said. From a legal standpoint, Gomez’s profession is just six years old. She has seen the industry mature with the enactment of Senate Bill 1418 in 2000 and a follow-up bill in 2001. The legislation established the & legal document assistants, or LDA, profession in state business codes. It differentiated the job from paralegals who work for attorneys and redefined independent paralegals as legal document assistants. Paralegals are not allowed to dispense legal advice or independently prepare court documents. The law requires paralegals to hold certificates from paralegal programs approved by the American Bar Association, or law-related degree from an accredited higher education institution.
Unlike legal document assistants, paralegals are not required to register or pay bonds. Legal document assistants have the same educational background as paralegals and must be bonded and registered with the county in which they work. They must stamp each page of court documents they prepare with their business name, address, phone number and registration number. State law authorizes them to prepare court documents for consumers who represent themselves in court. They are not allowed to give legal advice, interpret forms for clients or tell clients what information to place on court forms.
They can link clients with attorney-approved law books and other resources, Gomez said. “Our job is to put the law into the people’s hands,” she said. Gomez saw the level of respect for the profession rise as more people entered the field and as incidents of fraud diminished.
“It’s quite a step up. There were so many fly-by-nights and crooks,” she said. In the past, fraudulent independent paralegals would take clients’ money and disappear. “You don’t hear about that anymore,” Gomez said.
Gomez earned a paralegal certificate and bachelor’s degree in business administration from California State University, San Bernardino in 1993 and 1996, respectively. In 1996 she started Just Document Preparation in her home, offering independent paralegal services. In 2000 she posted a statewide bond and registered in Riverside County as a legal document assistants. Gomez registered in San Bernardino County in 2002 as a legal document assistants. Gomez wanted to work at home to care for her son, Joel Smith, who was 12 when she started her business. And she wanted to maintain her independence. “It was never my intention to make my career working for an attorney. I just wanted to work for myself. It was something that really interested me,” she said.
After five years, her business had outgrown her home office. Clients waited for their appointments in parked cars and in her yard. She rented space from an attorney on Brockton Avenue. Less than a year later, she moved to her current offices on Limonite Avenue.