Legal Eaglets

While visiting my friend Donna this summer, we drove past the building in her home town that once housed the law office where she worked as a legal secretary right out of high school. Donna went on to become a legal assistant and was part of the movement to first certify as a legal assistant in her state. She was surprised when I told her what I’d read recently about the State of Washington, where the legal profession is taking a page from the medical profession’s songbook and authorizing a new class of professionals called “limited license legal technicians” (LLLTs). Essentially, LLLTs are the nurse practitioners of the legal field.

Washington state was inspired to implement this ambitious experiment because of the high number of people with civil legal problems -- 80 to 90 percent -- who never consult an attorney because the cost is prohibitive. The government is required to provide counsel for criminal cases, but for consumer, employment, real estate, and family law, people are on their own if they can’t afford a lawyer.

To qualify as an LLLT, individuals will have to take classes at a community college, sit for a licensing exam, and apprentice under a lawyer for 3,000 hours before they open their own practice. This will entitle them to prepare court documents and perform legal research, just as lawyers do, but at a significantly lower cost. Revolutionary and groundbreaking, except that legal secretaries, paralegals and legal assistants have been doing this for years under the license of the law firm that employed them. While LLLTs will be able to fill a void, they will not be able to represent their clients in court.

Not surprisingly, economic issues are driving this evolution of the legal profession. The cost of the program is estimated at $10,000 -- far less than the cost of law school. Lawyers incur tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of educational debt and need to charge high fees just to pay it off. Clients often can’t afford to pay these fees. On the other hand, there is a glut of law school graduates competing for limited positions. The irony: too many lawyers and too many clients being underserved. Over time, as the program grows, the services LLLTs may be able to offer could expand. More individuals who are drawn to a career in the legal field may opt to become LLLTs rather than invest in a pricey law school education.

It’s not only organizations that have to innovate if they want to remain vital and grow. Professions also have to look for ways to change and open up opportunities -- not only for individuals to join the profession in new roles, but for consumers to receive the assistance they often need.

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