Washington Post op-ed: Who Says You Need a Law Degree to Practice Law?, by Robert Ambrogi:
Michelle Cummings never went to law school. Her formal college education ended in 1998, with a paralegal studies degree from Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash. But this summer, Cummings could start taking on legal clients who need help filing for divorce or child custody. Like a fully licensed attorney, she’ll be able to open an office and set her own fees.
Cummings is part of Washington state’s ambitious experiment to revolutionize access to legal services, particularly among the poor. ... Washington state’s answer is a new class of legal professionals called “limited license legal technicians.” They are the nurse practitioners of the legal world. Rather than earning a pricey law degree, candidates take about a year of classes at a community college, then a licensing exam. Once they do, they can help clients prepare court documents and perform legal research, just as lawyers do. “It will save time and heartache,” says Paula Littlewood, executive director of the Washington State Bar Association. “It’s groundbreaking.”
California, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico say they may follow Washington’s lead. The program, if it spreads, could transform how middle- and lower-class Americans use the law. ...
The Supreme Court of Washington state studied the issue and, in 2012, adopted a rule that allowed licensed non-lawyers to practice law in some limited ways. The court then appointed a 13-person Limited License Legal Technician Board to figure out what these LLLTs would need to know and how they should be chosen.
Working with a handful of state law schools, the board put together a list of requirements: Candidates would need to learn civil procedure, legal research, contracts and advanced family law. Twenty-nine community and technical colleges signed on to offer the necessary courses. The first class of 15 candidates matriculated in the winter of 2014.
All told, the program costs about $10,000 — far less than the average public-school law degree, which is $50,000. Finally, they apprentice under a lawyer for 3,000 hours before they hang their shingles. “They’re highly trained in a specific field of law,” says Steve Crossland, who chairs the LLLT board. “In some ways, it’s more intensive training than what a lawyer gets.” ...
Not everyone is so excited.
The Washington State Bar Association opposed the LLLT proposal right up until its approval by the Supreme Court. It argued that the rigorous training lawyers receive is essential to competently handling legal matters and protecting clients’ best interests. “All we’re providing is access to injustice, because the class of individuals described is not going to have the competency to actually do for the poor what needs to be done,” Ruth Laura Edlund, former chair of the state bar’s Family Law Section, said at a forum on the idea. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean your legal problems are simple.”
These concerns, though, ignore the basic economics of practicing law. “Many clients can’t afford what lawyers need to recoup to service their debt load,” says Elie Mystal, an editor of the legal news Web site Above the Law. “And so we have this weird situation where we both have too many lawyers and underserving of clients.”
Since an LLLT license is so much more affordable than a bar accreditation, candidates say they’ll charge considerably less than lawyers do, Crossland says.
Some Washington state lawyers also complained that the program would tighten an already tough job market. Only 84.5 percent of recent law school grads are employed. But LLLTs won’t replace lawyers, who will still be needed when a client goes to court or confronts a particularly challenging legal issue. Down the line, the program might even discourage some people from going to law school in the first place, reducing the glut of law grads competing for a limited number of positions. “You’ve got a class of people who want to increase their earning potential through doing low-level legal work, but they don’t want to invest three years and $150,000 in debt,” Mystal says. “This seems like a great option.”
(Hat Tip: David Barnhizer.)