Serving Clients: New Roles for Non-Lawyers

New Roles for Non-LawyersIt is frustrating that, in a country where just over half of law school graduates obtain full-time legal work, we still have a pervasive access to justice problem. Historically, the access to justice problem has been primarily seen from the low-income perspective – low-income individuals are consistently unable to access the courts despite the host of legal problems many of these individuals face. In recent years, access to justice has become a significant hurdle for the middle class as well.

The unmet civil legal needs of low and moderate income Americans is well documented and has grown worse since the economic crisis hit in 2008. Just as more people are in need of civil legal services, particularly in the area of consumer credit and housing, federal and state funding for legal services has seen significant cuts over the past few years. As a result, increasingly, litigants are representing themselves in court, leaving them overwhelmed and bewildered by the system and slowing down court operations.

It is therefore gratifying to see a number of programs spring up around the state and the country aimed at tackling the low-income access to justice problem, but expandable enough to address the middle-income access to justice gap. One of the more innovative approaches that courts and lawyers are taking is to train non-lawyers to provide certain legal-related information and assistance. Two such programs are the Illinois JusticeCorps and the Limited License Legal Technician position created by the Supreme Court of Washington.

Volunteers Reduce Bureaucratic Bewilderment

The Chicago Bar Foundation started Illinois JusticeCorps as a pilot program in the downtown Chicago Daley Center, Markham and Bloomington in 2012. Modeled after a similar program in California, volunteer college students and recent graduates are stationed in courthouses to provide information and assistance to members of the public who may be unsure about how to get their legal needs met. Now under the auspices of the Illinois Bar Foundation (IBF), with significant assistance from the Access to Justice Commission and the continued support of The Chicago Bar Foundation, the program has expanded to ten court sites throughout the state.

The JusticeCorps volunteers provide assistance as determined by local court personnel based on the unique needs and resources at a given courthouse. It may be navigational information about how to find a certain office or where to report as directed by a piece of mail they may have received. Sometimes, a volunteer may accompany an individual to a help center (most courthouses have kiosks) and help them find a form on the computer or do some minimal language interpretation. Training is extensive, provided by the IBF with assistance from local legal aid lawyers as well as training offered by court personnel and others specific to each site. Throughout the training, it is emphasized that the volunteers may provide information but not legal advice.

The program has been enthusiastically welcomed across the state. “People express appreciation at having a friendly young face they can talk to who helps them slow down a bewildering world,” said Dave Anderson, Executive Director of the IBF. Dave explained that judges report that self-represented litigants who have been helped by a JusticeCorps volunteer are better prepared mentally for the court proceedings, having had a lot of their fear and concern alleviated.

Licensed Non-Lawyers Perform Legal Services

A more radical approach to training non-lawyers to help with the access to justice issue is occurring in Washington State. In the early 2000s, the Washington Supreme Court established a Task Force on Civil Equal Justice Funding to conduct a Civil Needs Study in Washington.

The Task Force published its study in September 2003, and its findings included that the state’s most vulnerable populations were “systematically denied the ability to assert and enforce fundamental legal rights, and forced to live with the consequences.” According to the study, approximately 87 percent of low-income households in Washington experienced at least one civil legal problem during the previous year, the majority of which affected basic human needs, such as housing, family safety and public security. Additionally, low-income people faced more than 85 percent of their legal problems without help from an attorney, often because they were unaware of the laws or relief available.

Based on the results of the study, and much discussion with the Washington bar, in 2012, the Washington Supreme Court adopted a new court rule to improve access to justice. The Limited Practice Rule for Limited License Legal Technicians (“LLLT”) allows non-lawyers who satisfy certain education, financial responsibility, moral character, licensing and examination requirements to advise and assist clients with issues falling within approved practice areas of law.

Domestic relations was chosen as the first approved practice area. A collaborative effort between law schools and community colleges created a curriculum for the educational component of the LLLTs. The first handful of LLLTs are slated to graduate in the Spring of 2015.

Meanwhile, the Washington model may gain some traction in other states. Over the last year, task forces or working groups were created California, New York and Oregon to study the feasibility of creating a limited law license for non-lawyer advocates to help bridge the justice gap.

The success of these innovative approaches to deliver law-related legal services to previously un- or underserved segments of the population remains to be seen. The access to justice problem is complex and widespread. Devising solutions will require varied and innovative approaches—and openness to change.

 

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

7 thoughts on “Serving Clients: New Roles for Non-Lawyers

  1. I worked for a few years as a contract attorney for a firm based in Maryland which provides unbundled legal services and simple bankruptcy assistance to consumer debtors in, at that time, all 50 states via contract attorneys licensed in those states. Although I was sometimes frustrated by my inability to do more for my clients, i think our services were better than no assistance at all. has there been any expansion of the unbundled model, or something similar, in Illinois in recent years?

    With respect to the Washington State model, why on earth would anyone think the right solution is to create some new quasi-legal position when there are so many young lawyers who can’t find jobs?! Wouldn’t a better solution be to create a state version of something like Americorps for unemployed recent law school graduates?

    I’m intrigued by this topic and eager to hear your and others’ thoughts and ideas.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Julia. In 2013, Illinois joined many other states in allowing limited scope representation—or unbundling of legal services–designed to improve access to justice. Your experience is similar to that reported by other lawyers—unbundling or performing limited services may not represent all that could be done for the client, but it is better than the client receiving no services at all. With respect to the Washington LLLT model, the decision to create this new licensure followed many years of study and a determination that the services to be rendered were not those that licensed attorneys were willing to offer. The first LLLT class is supposed to be licensed this spring—we will all be watching to see what happens.

      1. Jayne, which specific services will the LLLTs provide that family law attorneys are not willing to provide? At my law school I am the Director of our DV clinic and one issue we are workng through is how to provide effective unbundled legal services for some of the eight areas of law we cover for our clients. For example, should you assist a client in exercising rights under VESSA to seek time away from work to obtain DV related services if your clinic cannot also commit to handling in court a subsequent retaliatory firing? Is disclosing the possibility of the retaliation and lack of future representation on that from our clinc in the limited scope engagement letter adequate? Is the client really better off with the limited legal assistance provided? These are questions we are currently analyzing as we decide how to allocate the resources we have to providing pro bono legal assistance here in Illinois. Your thoughts on this would be appreciated. Debra Stark

      2. I should add that VESSA provides an administrative process for retaliatory violations but that also requires a substantial time commitment to perform and if an unsatisfactory result occurs a possible appeal to a circuit court.

  2. This should be done for all professions, not only lawyers. Even with insurance, many people still can not afford adequate medical or dental care. With a glut of strays and unwanted pets and with veterinary care being so expensive without insurance coverage in so many cases, many people cannot adopt or keep their pets. Lawyers have always done their part taking on pro bono cases and giving free consultations unlike other professions. So, if this new proposal applies to lawyers, it should also apply to other professions like doctors in particular, where lack of access to adequate care could really be a life or death situation. Or perhaps, implementing legal insurance on par with medical insurance would be more helpful.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspectives about analogies to other professions, Bobbie. The background research done in Washington before the LLLT model was adopted included looking at the medical profession. Over the past several decades, the medical profession developed new classes of professionals to deliver some of the more routine services at lower cost. Now the professionals known as physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners are fairly ubiquitous. Will be curious to see how this all plays out in Washington and several other states considering the model.

  3. I’m gratified to know that the Washington Supreme Court is concerned with the twin problems of unemployed lawyers and the middle class’s inability to afford access to legal services. But after reading their new Rule creating “Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLT’s)” I wondered how it would solve either of those problems. Encouraging more paraprofessionals isn’t going to create jobs for unemployed lawyers; if anything, it just creates more competition.
    Worse, the LLLT’s role is truly limited: they can’t contact or negotiate with the other side, and they can’t appear in court. Plus they’re constrained by the same office economics of any lawyer: to cover their office overhead and salaries they’ll have to charge hourly fees in excess of $100 just to explain to pro-se clients how to fill out forms. How will the clients react to paying that much when they discover it isn’t one-stop shopping, and they still have to hire a lawyer to deal with the other side and appear in court for a prove-up?

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