Lots of us have been watching this long-standing but very important saga.
The Washington State Supreme Court has now by Order approved a Rule generally permitting non-lawyer legal technicians. The Order does not itself authorize specific areas of legal technician work; that authorization will be made later by the Court, based on recommendations from the newly created “Limited License Legal Technician Board.” The Board is to be appointed by the Supreme Court, and there will be a clear majority (9 out of 13) of lawyers on the Board. I think the assumption is that family law is likely to be an early area. The Order was not unanimous, but issued over three dissenting votes. The proposal for the concept was made in 2008.
The project offers significant opportunities to get a much better picture of whether non-lawyer practice is practical, what parameters are realistic, and whether it is right that the idea will advance access to justice. There has been a history in some other states of less carefully crafted programs generating horror stories.
The most important parts of the program are as follows:
- Licensed Legal Technicians must have formal paralegal training, and paralegal job experience,
- They must have done 20 hours of pro bono within the prior two years,
- They must take an exam,
- They must show ability to meet financial responsibilities,
- They are allowed to:
- Explain facts and relevancy,
- Inform the client of procedures and “anticipated course of the legal proceeding,”
- Provide the client with self-help materials approved by the Board or prepared by a Washington state lawyer
- Review and explain the other sides documents and exhibits,
- Select and complete forms approved by various groups,
- Perform legal research and write legal letters and documents, but only if reviewed by a Washington lawyer,
- Advise the client about other needed documents,
- Assist the client in obtaining needed documents,
- Must have physical street address in Washington State,
- Must have written contract describing services and fees,
- CLE is required,
- Attorney-client privilege and fiduciary duty apply.
The Order carefully makes the argument for the project, effectively answering the many arguments against it. As such it stands as a clear statement of the need for, and potential advantages of the approach, that should have a significant impact nationally. The dissent criticizes the unfairness to the Bar, arguing the bar will be burdened with the administrative cost of the program. Even if accurate, I do not find the argument powerful. Surely it is shortsighted. (For debate on the earlier proposal, see the July 2008 Washington State Bar Journal.)
I would urge everyone to keep a very careful eye on this experiment. There are strong arguments that the current parameters of the legal monopoly are unrealistic — unless that is, the profession moves much faster to find ways of delivering services much more efficiently and therefore cheaply. Time is running out.