Paralegal licenses: incremental improvement to access isn’t perfect, but it isn’t bad.

Wrong

In 2013, the Washington Supreme Court adopted a rule authorizing limited license legal technicians to practice.  In 2015, the Legal Education Committee of the Vermont Joint Commission on the Future of Legal Services recommended something similar: authorization for Vermont Certified Paralegals to provide limited legal services.  The recommendation was based, in part, on the staggering number of self-represented litigants in Vermont’s civil docket.

Washington’s LLLT program is here.  The report of the Vermont Joint Commission is here.  The recommendations from the Legal Education Committee begin on page 11.

I chaired the Legal Education Committee.  The idea of a Vermont Certified Paralegal program hasn’t gained much traction.  Which makes me wonder . . .

. . . what if we got it wrong?

To be clear, I don’t think we were wrong to recommend limited licensure for paralegals.  Rather, I wonder if we were wrong to recommend a training & certification program that includes too many barriers to entry.  Did we focus too much on creating mini-lawyers, when far less would be a gargantuan improvement in access to legal services?  In short, did we make “perfect” an enemy of “good?”

These thoughts struck me late yesterday afternoon as I read Mary Juetten’s article in the ABA Journal: The limited license legal technician is the way of the future of law.

Some of Juetten’s key points:

  • “First, access to justice is not limited to low-income Americans. The 80 percent unmet need figure is based on the entire population. Therefore, many families cannot qualify for help and cannot afford an attorney.”
  • “Second, most middle-income citizens carry debt loads commensurate to their earnings, and any unplanned expenses are difficult to cover.”
  • “Third, many family law attorneys charge anywhere from $250 to $400 per hour, which is still more than double that of a LLLT. For example, using a 10-hour matter, a LLLT could charge up to $1,500 but an attorney would be $4,000. That $2,500 is a substantial savings to almost everyone.

Think about that.  $2500.  I’m guessing that even among the demographic reading this blog, $2500 isn’t an amount tossed around casually.

From there, Juetten notes:

  • “As of this month, there are only 26 LLLTs licensed in Washington, mainly concentrated in the Seattle-Tacoma area. The program appears to suffer from barriers to entry including the cost of the classes and the duration of the practical experience requirement. In addition, the classes are not eligible for student aid, so it is also expensive.”

And it’s about when I finished the last paragraph that I said to myself “Self, what if we got it wrong?”

As we consider whether to issue limited licenses to paralegals, we shouldn’t design or require training & certification programs that approximate law school.  The goal shouldn’t be to provide people who can’t afford lawyers with access to something that  walks, talks, and looks like a lawyer.  It should be to provide them with something that is better than they have now – which is nothing.

It’s long past time to think outside the box.  Let’s play “what if.”

What if an 8-week training program is sufficient to provide competent & practical legal services that are better than nothing?  What if it’s 6 weeks?  What if it’s 2?

We didn’t consider those options.  Maybe we should. I mean, we let new lawyers hang their own shingles without requiring liability insurance or any training in trust accounting.

Let’s be honest: right now, there are high-quality Vermont paralegals who, without any additional training, could walk into a courthouse and provide much needed access to the scores of family law litigants without any.  Seriously.  If you were to get divorced tomorrow, who would you choose? A paralegal who has worked for years in a family law practice, or, me?  I’ve been licensed for 23 years and wouldn’t know the first thing to do for you.

I’m not declaring that an 8 (or 6 or 2) week training program is sufficient.  But again, what if it is?  The Vermont Bar Association is more than capable of providing comprehensive and high-quality training.

Some of you might be rolling your eyes and asking “what good would that do in the bigger picture?”   You’re right, it’s not perfect.  There will still be too many people who can’t afford legal services. But, we have to stop looking for the magic bullet that solves the entire problem at once.  The “big picture” gets smaller by providing access to 1 person at a time.

One of my priest’s favorite sermons centers on Loren Eisley’s The Starfish Story.  Here’s the story:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed
a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.
The surf is up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son, the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish?
You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish,
and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said
“I made a difference for that one.”

So, maybe we got it wrong.  In a perfect world, a Vermont Certified Paralegal might have thousands of hours of practical work and a semester or two of legal curriculum. For now, however, it might require far less to begin to make a difference.

 

8 thoughts on “Paralegal licenses: incremental improvement to access isn’t perfect, but it isn’t bad.

  1. There are already voluntary certification programs for paralegals. One is run by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (which the Vermont Paralegal Organization is a member of) and one run by NALA the National Association of Legal Assistants. VPO members arie working on an article for the VT Bar Journal about these programs.

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  2. Hi Mike,

    Great piece on paralegals and access to legal services. The dental industry in Vermont did something similar with licensed dental practitioners and I think it is a great idea. There are so many areas of law that attorneys can’t afford to do and thus go unserved. Similar to dentists, I think attorneys are needed for high value work (the equivalent of root canals). We don’t need attorneys to do the equivalent of filling cavities.

    I wholeheartedly support your efforts in this area!

    Best,

    Dave

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  3. It’s so encouraging to see posts that support Mike Kennedy’s position on solving the access to justice issues in Vermont. I think the dental (i.e. dental assistant, dental hygienist, dental therapist, DMD) and medical (LNA, RN, NP, MD) industry models are something that the legal community needs to spend more time exploring and becoming comfortable with. The argument for allowing non-licensed individuals to provide legal advice or assistance shouldn’t focus on the impacts to the profession but the goals to those we serve (Vermonters and the Court). It’s not in anyone’s (individual attorneys, firms, vermonters, or the Courts) interest to have a pro se litigant rate of 70%, particularly in family court. I feel strongly that basic representation should be available to all Vermonters regardless of income level. It is beyond sad to me that an individual can face losing their children without any legal representation (because the average rate is over $175/hr – something most Vermonters cannot afford) particularly in situations where the other side IS represented. We can do better! I also believe strongly that this is what the market is demanding. We have started to see this with new insurance billing guidelines – insurance providers don’t want to “overpay” by having an attorney do something that can be accomplished by someone with a lesser skill set. I think there is a solution that allows EVERYONE to benefit. Let’s find it together.

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  4. Very thought provoking article. I think, outsourcing paralegal services has increased value these days and may be licensing is one of the major factor contributing in it. For details on Legal Transcription Services click here.

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