Future Law

Future or Folly: Limited License Legal Technicians

Graduation Limited License Legal TechniciansIt’s graduation time. This year, there is a brand new class of graduates in the State of Washington: Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs). These graduates are from a unique legal educational program—not a traditional law school. Yet they will eventually have a law license to perform limited legal services in family law.

Requirements of LLLT Program

Washington’s LLLT program was established when the state’s Supreme Court amended Washington’s Admission and Practice Rules in 2012. The program allows a new category of professional, the LLLT, to provide legal services and advice in approved areas of law. The LLLT “does not represent the client in court proceedings or negotiations, but provides limited legal assistance as set forth” in the rule, including assisting the client in gathering documents and explaining deadlines and documents that must be filed. The first approved area of law that LLLTs will be allowed to practice in is family law. The governing board anticipates later expansion into other substantive areas of the law.

To become an LLLT, an applicant must be eighteen years old and must meet education, examination, and experience requirements. The year-long education program costs around $10,000 and includes coursework in civil procedure, legal research, contracts, professional responsibility and advanced family law. After the education requirement has been met, an LLLT must gain substantive law experience under the supervision of a lawyer. In order to practice, an LLLT must obtain malpractice insurance and fulfill professional obligations similar to that of an attorney, such as attending continuing legal education courses, abiding by a code of ethical conduct, and being subject to disciplinary measures for any violation of this code.

On March 23 of this year, the Washington Supreme Court entered another transformative order: allowing LLLTs to share fees with lawyers and become minor partners in law firms. The LLLTs are specifically prohibited under new Washington Rule of Professional Conduct 5.9 from supervising attorneys or in any way controlling an attorney’s independent professional judgment. This change is modeled off legal reforms that already allow fee-sharing between lawyers and non-lawyers in the United Kingdom and in Australia.

The District of Columbia is the only other U.S. jurisdiction that allows non-lawyer ownership in law firms.

Rationale for Program

In enacting the radical program, the court relied on the state’s 2003 Civil Legal Needs Study documenting that low and moderate income residents (families with incomes between 200 and 400% of the Federal poverty Level) found civil legal services unaffordable. So the primary purpose of the state’s LLLT program is to provide service to middle-to-low income individuals and families who would previously be unable to access legal services due to financial barriers.

In explaining its actions, the court also laid out the many unsuccessful steps taken to alleviate the access to justice gap. Noting that the unaffordability of civil legal services caused many folks to turn to unregulated services (such as Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer) the Court adopted this course to make sure public citizens had access to legal services from trained professionals.

Pros and Cons of the Program

The Washington Supreme Court took this action despite sharp opposition from members of the bar (and a dissenting Justice). The main criticism is that lawyers remain underemployed and the LLLTs may take income-generating work away from lawyers. Without the same degree of training and education as lawyers earning a juris doctor degree after three years in an ABA-accredited law school, some argue, LLLTs will not be able to fully serve their clients or protect their best interests.

Proponents liken this development in the legal profession to the advent of the nurse practitioner in the medical profession. Some clients may not want or need the “full services” offered by an attorney. In a chapter of the just-released book, The Relevant Lawyer, Reimagining the Future of the Legal Profession, Paula Littlewood and Stephen Crossland of the Washington Bar Association explain the rationale behind Washington’s LLLT program, asserting, “Perhaps it is time for lawyers to face the fact that the public needs more legal services, in both type and volume, than the legal profession is currently delivering.”

Harbinger of the Future or One State Folly

Are these moves in Washington going to set the stage for similar changes across the nation? Other states are considering the idea.

In 2013, California began the process of exploring solutions to the justice gap. The public comment period just closed on the Civil Justice Strategies Task Force Report and Recommendations. The Recommendations include designing a pilot LLLT program in one subject area and with the input of the state supreme court, address governance, oversight and licensing.

Similarly, the Oregon Bar Association assembled a task force that issued its report earlier this year. One recommendation is that the “legal technician” concept be explored as a means to address the justice gap. The justice gap in Oregon, according to the report, has become worse over the last decade. In 1992, 38% of all family law litigants in Oregon were self-represented; the current report pegs that number at 86%. This despite undisputed reports that new attorneys are having a difficult time in obtaining employment. The report concludes that the percentage of self-represented family law litigants has not decreased over the years because new lawyers have not found a method to represent this population.

Other states may be considering a paraprofessional program similar to Washington’s LLLT program. Paula Littlewood and Stephen Crossland have been invited to discuss the program by many bar associations or task forces, including in New Mexico, Colorado, and Illinois.

Whether Limited License Legal Technicians become a trend remains to be seen. At least the program represents an innovative attempt to solve a persistent and growing problem that the legal profession has an obligation to address.

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