Paralegals often face questions about the extent and limitations of their role in the legal system. These parameters are poorly defined in most states, leaving a substantial gray area that has caused many people to call for professional licensing laws that would help to better delineate what legal work a paralegal may or may not perform.
The term “substantive legal work” may be one that’s used often in the field, but still, it lacks a clear and universal definition that everyone agrees on.
The movement toward requiring licensing for paralegals took a turn in Washington state five years ago, when in 2012 the state Supreme Court decided to allow the licensing of non-lawyers to practice law in certain narrowly defined areas.
Admission and Practice Rule 28 (APR 28) was finalized in 2015 and allowed paralegals meeting certain educational standards and passing a test to perform limited practice in the area of family law in Washington state.
The new position does not require licensing for regular paralegals who practice under the supervision of attorneys, but rather creates a new category that allows some paralegals to practice without attorney supervision at all.
Working As a Limited License Legal Technician
LLLTs don’t necessarily have significantly more training than any other paralegal but they have significantly more freedom. Removed from the requirement to have a lawyer supervising their work, they have the freedom to open their own offices, set their own rates, and provide legal advice to clients as they see fit.
Their clientele are largely middle and lower class people who otherwise would have no representation in civil matters, including divorces, child custody hearings, and matters of domestic violence. Although these are pedestrian issues for lawyers, they involve major, life-changing matters for clients. LLLTs can expect to make a big difference for clients in ways they could not have as normal paralegals.
LLLTs have to be mindful of the limits of their role. They have a carefully defined list of prohibited activities. And they have to be comfortable referring clients to lawyers for matters outside their expertise or purview.
But their daily activities resemble the work of lawyers more than that of paralegals in many respects. They analyze legal issues, perform legal research, draft legal papers, and provide legal advice to their clients.
And as of early 2015, LLLTs in Washington are also allowed to become minor partners in law firms and share fees with lawyers… making Washington the only state in the union that allows non-lawyer ownership of a law firm.
Despite the relative freedom of practice, LLLTs are still restricted in three important ways that lawyers are not—they are not allowed to:
- Represent clients in court.
- Negotiate on behalf of their client.
- Prepare documents not specified in the LLLT Practice Area list.
And although they can become partners in law firms, they are not members of the bar and would not be allowed to supervise lawyers in any way, though they are not necessarily always subordinates to attorneys.
Becoming a Limited License Legal Technician
The requirements to become a Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) in Washington are:
- Obtain an associate’s degree or higher.
- Complete 45 credit hours of core curriculum in an approved legal program.
- Complete applicable practice area courses offered by the University of Washington School of Law.
- Complete 3,000 hours of substantive paralegal experience under the supervision of a lawyer.
- Take and pass a Practice Area and Professional Responsibility Exam.
Although family law is currently the only recognized Practice Area covered under the rule, many paralegals see expansion into other areas as inevitable.
The Evolution of Legal Technician Licensing
Regulation of paralegals is a controversial topic both among paralegals themselves and within the legal profession in general. To date, the field as a whole has avoided any widespread licensing requirements.
Just as the field of medicine has recognized that there are levels of service that do not require a doctor and can be offered effectively and at lower cost by certified nurse practitioners or physician assistants, the legal field is coming to understand that it is pricing many people out of effective legal representation by restricting all legal practice to lawyers. Limited legal licenses are a step toward providing legal services to historically underrepresented classes.
States like Arizona and California have taken steps to certify non-lawyers who prepare legal documents. But in many areas, upstart legal services firms such as Legal Zoom or Rocket Lawyer have been stepping in to provide services, despite being unregulated and sometimes challenged by state bars.
Legal technicians are a step beyond legal document preparers in that they are allowed to independently provide legal services on par with what lawyers can offer within their own specific practice areas.
The impetus for this category of paralegal is the cost of legal services. In Washington, decreasing budgets for free legal aid non-profits in the wake of the 2008 recession pushed the Supreme Court into seriously considering the LLLT ruling. The court cited two reasons as justification for establishing the program: 1) the failure of traditional legal services to meet the needs of lower income citizens, and 2) the troubling prospect of unlicensed web services filling that gap.
A number of other states are now considered licensing legal technicians following the Washington model:
- New Mexico
And in December of 2015, the Utah Supreme Court has already approved a measure called the Licensed Paralegal Practitioner Program, aahich will allow paralegals to practice in family law, eviction, and debt collection cases. The courts have formed a task force to consider the specific implementation of the program but have not issued a timeline for implementation.