A legal document assistant, commonly referred to as an LDA, is an American professional who assists self-representing clients prepare the paperwork necessary to appear in court. A legal document assistant is not a lawyer or a paralegal, but rather is an independent document technician, or legal document preparer. The role of the LDA and the specific tasks that an LDA can perform for a client are set by the individual states, with the result that LDA activities permitted in one state may be forbidden in another. United States law is particularly tough on individuals who are found to be practicing law without a license, and how the states interpret that prohibition in the legal document assistant space varies widely.
Most legal document assistants do for individuals what paralegals do for lawyers: they provide legal assistance and support. Paralegals in the majority of U.S. jurisdictions assist and prepare documents for lawyers, but are not allowed to interface with clients directly. Only lawyers can advise and work with clients. Lawyers can be costly, however, and for routine matters, many clients only need a little bit of help with documents and filings. This is where the legal document assistant comes in.
The rising cost and frequency of litigation throughout the United States is credited by many for the boom in the legal document assistant profession. Legal document assistants basically act as the legal pen for a client who is appearing pro se in court. The LDA cannot represent the client — the client still must represent himself — but the LDA can help that client ensure that all of his filings and documents are in order.
Most of the time, the client must act as the main driver of the paperwork. Usually the legal document assistant can do little more than fill out and file documents provided by the client. The legal document assistant cannot usually recommend which documents to file, or advise a client how to manage his case, without running the risk of crossing the legal practice line.
All the same, the legal document preparer offers a compelling service to a client who knows what he wants to do. Particularly in cases like uncontested divorces, property conveyances, the formation of corporations, and some adoptions, clients usually know exactly what they want to proceed, but how to get there in paper is often harder. Paperwork that is improperly filled out or filed can significantly delay the progress of a case. Lawyers usually provide the same document services as LDAs in the course of representing a client, but a lawyer’s services are typically quite costly.
Many legal document assistants have experience either as paralegals or legal secretaries, but not all do. Legal document assistant training requirements and qualifications vary by jurisdiction. Legal document assistants are legal technicians who can help clients at a lower cost than an attorney, but they are not free. To make an LDA worth the time and the cost, the client must have a good idea of how he is going to proceed. A client who needs advice on more than simply how to file known documents should consult a licensed attorney.
As the Internet and the ability to electronically file documents grows, the role of many legal document assistants has become one of understanding both the specifications of legal document preparations, as well as the nuances of legal preparation software. An LDA in modern times in often doubles as an online legal document provider. The Internet has made legal documents easier to file and submit, but it has not really relaxed any of the strict formatting or content requirements courts put on legal filings.