Thursday, June 4, 2015

Legal Technicians Have Arrived

The first seven people have passed the exam in Washington to become the country's first legal technicians.

The ABA Journal reported on this trend in January. The legal technicians will be licensed by the state to provide legal advice and assistance to clients in certain areas of law without the supervision of a lawyer. The first practice area in which LLLTs will be licensed is domestic relations.

"So far, Washington stands alone in formally licensing nonlawyers to provide legal services. But California is actively considering nonlawyer licensing, and several other states are beginning to explore it. New York has sidestepped licensing and is already allowing nonlawyers to provide legal assistance in limited circumstances while also looking to expand their use."

As for the practicalities, the legal technicians "will be free to set their own fees and work independently of lawyers, even opening their own offices. The laws of attorney-client privilege and of a lawyer's fiduciary responsibility to the client will apply just as they would to an attorney. LLLTs (limited license legal technician) will be authorized to help clients prepare and review legal documents and forms; advise them on other documents they may need; explain legal procedures and proceedings, including procedures for service of process and filing of legal documents; and gather relevant facts and explain their significance. They may also perform legal research, but only if the work is approved by a Washington lawyer. LLLTs may not accompany clients into court or engage in negotiations on a client's behalf. The LLLT board is considering whether to propose an amendment to the rule that would allow LLLTs to engage in these activities."

"To become an LLLT, an applicant must have at least an associate's degree and complete 45 credit hours of core curriculum currently being taught at community colleges in the state. The core curriculum is specified by court rule and covers topics such as civil procedure, contracts, legal research and writing, professional responsibility, and law office procedures and technology. In addition, applicants must complete courses specific to the practice area in which they seek to be licensed. For family law, the only approved practice area so far, the 15-hour curriculum was developed jointly by the state's three ABA-approved law schools—at Gonzaga University, Seattle University and the University of Washington. Applicants also must have 3,000 hours of substantive law-related work experience supervised by a licensed lawyer."

"Once licensed, LLLTs will be subject to a regulatory framework similar to that for lawyers. They will be required to pay an annual license fee, fulfill annual continuing education requirements, set up IOLTA accounts for handling their clients' funds, and maintain professional liability insurance in the amount of at least $100,000 per claim and $300,000 annual aggregate."

All states will be watching as the Washington program gets off the ground. This may just be the key to close the justice gap, as "[p]roponents maintain there is simply no other way to address the justice gap in the United States. They cite multiple state and federal studies showing that 80 to 90 percent of low- and moderate-income Americans with legal problems are unable to obtain or afford legal representation. The economics of traditional law practice make it impossible for lawyers to offer their services at prices these people can afford."

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