Practicing law without a law degree: Legal technicians and access to justice

The Washington Post published an editorial last week on an emerging issue in the legal world: legal services provided by non-lawyers. Central to the issue is access to justice for low to moderate income individuals who require legal services, but have been increasingly unable to afford them. This is due to both costs for traditional legal services provided by for-pay lawyers and problems with funding in legal services organizations such as Legal Aid, leading to the reduction in staff and services in many states.

Washington state's answer to this issue, at least in part, is the adoption of the limited license legal technician program, which allows non-lawyers to provide certain legal services after fulfilling specific training and licensing requirements. The ABA Journal reported on this program in January. It is currently limited to the practice of family law and requires an associate's degree, plus 45 hours of core curriculum in topics such as civil procedure, legal research and writing and professional responsibility. Additionally, the technicians must complete training in the substantive area of practice and have 3000 hours of "substantive law-related work experience, supervised by a licensed lawyer," according to the ABA Journal.

Washington's program is fairly unique, although other states, including California, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico may consider something similar, according to the Washington Post editorial. The idea of legal technicians draws comparisons to nurse practitioners, who are permitted to provide some medical services, but not the full range that doctors can do. In Washington, for example, legal technicians can help prepare documents and explain legal proceedings, but can't negotiate on behalf of clients or represent them in court. They can only perform legal research if it is supervised by a licensed attorney.

The program and similar programs suggested in other states have drawn sharp criticism from many, including the Washington Bar Association and many licensed attorneys, who cite concerns about competency and the impact on consumers. Proponents argue that programs like this will bridge the gap in access to justice for many, citing a mismatch between clients' ability to pay legal fees and the costs to lawyers of practicing law, often including significant educational debt. According to the New Jersey Law Journal, the ABA as a whole has yet to take a formal position on expanding programs like Washington's. The Washington Post article, however, cites to a 2014 report, in which an ABA task force advises states to license “persons other than holders of a JD to deliver limited legal services,” which may be an indicator of things to come from the ABA.