Restore Access to Justice Through Limited License Legal Technicians

Vol. 31 No. 3

By

Steve Crossland is a solo in Cashmere, Washington, practicing in the areas of real estate, estate planning, business, and mediations. In 2012 he was appointed by the Washington State Supreme Court to chair the state’s Limited License Legal Technician Board.

In June 2012 the Supreme Court of the State of Washington adopted a court rule authorizing persons who are not traditionally licensed lawyers to deliver legal services in a limited fashion. For more than a decade the Washington Supreme Court was aware of a growing need to provide legal services to the public, a need that was not being served by lawyers. A study commissioned by the Washington Supreme Court (Civil Legal Needs Study, 2003, tinyurl.com/mq5jfzj) revealed that the segments of the population not able to access the legal system were not only the poor but lower-middle-income and middle-income families. In this article I will articulate why the rule was adopted; how the program works; and the effect on our profession—particularly on solo and small firm lawyers.

Adoption of the LLLT Rule

Through its study, the Washington Supreme Court quantified the significant unmet civil legal need in our state. The study concluded that access to the legal system, a fundamental right, is being denied to a significant portion of the population and that correcting this situation is imperative for the well-being of the people of Washington. There are many legal service providers who are doing incredible work with limited resources to attempt to meet this unmet need, but thus far the need far exceeds the resources. In response, the Washington Supreme Court adopted the Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) Rule.

The driving principles of the program are to meet the unmet need for access to the legal system and to do so in a manner that will serve and not harm the public. LLLTs will be authorized to deliver legal services in a limited scope in certain Supreme Court–approved practice areas. These practitioners will receive education from paralegal programs as well as the state’s three law schools.

How the LLLT Program Works

The licensing requirements for LLLTs are not unlike those for lawyers. The technicians will need to pass an examination; engage in continuing education; follow the rules of professional conduct; and show proof of financial responsibility, among other stringent requirements.

The examination will be in two parts. The first part will cover “core subjects” such as civil procedure, legal research, contracts, and professional responsibility. The second part of the examination will be devoted to the specific practice area authorized by the Supreme Court. An applicant for the LLLT license must pass both components of the examination in order to become licensed.

Additionally, prior to licensure, LLLTs must obtain approximately 18 months of full-time substantive law–related work experience under the supervision of an attorney. This requirement ensures LLLTs, who may operate their own freestanding practices, have the practical experience necessary to provide competent, autonomous legal services to clients.

LLLTs will essentially be subject to the same rules of professional conduct that are in place for lawyers; as members of the legal profession serving the public, LLLTs must uphold the same ethical standards as fully licensed attorneys.

Unlike lawyers in Washington State, LLLTs are required to provide evidence of financial responsibility. This requirement is a protection for the public that we as lawyers do not guarantee in any U.S. jurisdiction except Oregon.

The process of implementation and administration of the program is in the hands of the Supreme Court–created LLLT Board. The program is regulated by the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA). The WSBA will oversee the applications to the program, testing, licensing, discipline, continuing education, and all other regulatory and professional needs for LLLTs.

In January 2013 the LLLT Board began the process of picking a practice area to which the LLLT Rule would be applied initially. The rule is designed to be applied to any number of practice areas. The area of family law was initially chosen as it was understood to be one of the areas of highest unmet need.

The next tasks presented to the LLLT Board were to define the scope of practice, create an education program that trained applicants in the limited practice area, create an examination that would screen and qualify the applicants, and finally develop a set of rules of professional conduct to which these practitioners would be required to adhere.

Some very exciting dynamics have evolved since the LLLT Rule was adopted. One of the most exciting is the collaboration among our three law schools (University of Washington, Seattle University, and Gonzaga University) and our many community colleges, which have participated in creating and implementing the education component of the program. It is hoped that this collaboration will accomplish the goals of making the program affordable, accessible, and academically rigorous.

The Effect on Lawyers

What does the LLLT Rule mean to lawyers and, particularly, to solo and small firm lawyers? I am a sole practitioner. I believe the LLLT program is an opportunity for all of us.

The likely business models for LLLTs will be either freestanding; on staff with lawyers and law firms; or perhaps in the civil legal aid arena. The program envisions that there can be and should be collaboration among LLLTs and lawyers. The target market for LLLTs is for the most part pro se users of the system who cannot afford the fees that lawyers do—and in most cases must—charge. The market will likely be low- and moderate-income clients.

Admittedly, there are some, if not many, lawyers in our position in the profession who see this development as a threat and challenge to their practice. The answer I often give to this concern is, “If that segment of the market were being served by our profession, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

It is envisioned that entrepreneurial lawyers will hire one or more LLLTs to assist in bringing in clients to serve needs within the scope authorized for LLLTs and then passing clients along to the lawyer to complete the needed services that are beyond the scope authorized for the LLLT. I have been contacted by a young solo lawyer who has hired three paralegals whom she plans to have licensed as LLLTs. Her plan is exactly as explained above. Another midsized big-city firm hopes to use LLLTs to assist in their immigration practice, assuming that the LLLT Rule may at some point in time be expanded to include immigration. We have also been contacted by midsized firms seeking to license their paralegals, understanding it is a way to expand their breadth of services.

The Future of LLLTs

It is hard to say to what practice areas the rule may be applied in the future. I think it is safe to assume that the new areas will be those where there is a significant unmet need. The Civil Legal Needs Study suggested the following such areas: family law, elder law, immigration, and housing. The LLLT Board believes that selecting additional practice areas is important to serve the public. Furthermore, licensing an LLLT in more than one practice area will allow for more diverse business models for LLLTs.

As lawyers we need to understand that we have had a monopoly that authorizes us to provide the public access to the legal system. We have failed in that obligation. We need to embrace alternative ways to fulfill our commitment to provide the public with qualified and regulated access to the legal system in a way that we have been unable to provide for decades. As some commentators have observed, we can “do it or have it done to us.” The consuming public is already moving to legal providers such as LegalZoom and other online providers. We must remember our obligation to serve the public in allowing them access to the legal system that is the cornerstone of our way of life in this country.

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