Clark College program trains non-lawyers to give legal advice

School is part of first-in-the-nation training program

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

For more information

• To learn more about the Limited License Legal Technician program, visit www.wsba.org/lllt

• For information on program prerequisites at Clark College, call 360-992-2485, email lrussell@clark.edu or visit www.wsba.org/lllt

Vancouver’s Clark College is one of five community colleges offering prerequisite classes for a groundbreaking state program designed to provide more affordable legal advice for those who can’t afford a lawyer.

The state’s Limited License Legal Technician program — the first of its kind in the nation — allows licensees to provide limited legal advice in certain areas of the law.

The first 16 LLLTs are on track to be licensed by spring 2015 and will represent the first independent legal paraprofessionals in the nation, said Paula Littlewood, executive director of the Washington State Bar Association, which administers the program.

“It’s a new profession for somebody to pursue,” Littlewood said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our state.”

The state Supreme Court authorized the creation of the program in 2012 to improve access to justice for an increasing number of people going to court without a lawyer — a trend fueled by the recent recession. The idea stemmed from work by the state’s Committee to Define the Practice of Law from 1998 to 2002. Part of the committee’s work was to find solutions to improve access to justice and to curb unauthorized practice of the law, said Steve Crossland, the committee’s former chairman who is now chairman of the state bar association’s LLLT board.

Opponents of the program worried that LLLTs might pose a threat to lawyers who practice family law, but the Supreme Court concluded in its order authorizing the program that “protecting the monopoly status of attorneys in any practice area is not a legitimate objective.”

Currently, only lawyers may give legal advice. Meanwhile, more than 85 percent of low-income residents go without representation in civil legal cases largely because they can’t afford lawyers’ fees, according to a 2003 Washington State Civil Legal Needs Study. Those are the most recent statistics available, though a new Civil Legal Needs Study is underway.

People without legal representation in civil cases who earn 200 to 400 percent of the federal poverty level make up an untapped market of several billion dollars nationally, Littlewood said.

“It’s staggering,” Crossland said.

No shortage of need

Government-funded and volunteer legal-aid agencies cannot serve the volume of people who represent themselves and need guidance through the court system, and court facilitators are limited in what kind of help they can offer on legal forms. LLLTs will help fill that gap in services, and their hourly rate is expected to be a fraction of a lawyer’s.

“LLLTs are a new business model, and so little information (about how much they’ll be paid) exists since Washington will be the first state to have such jobs,” said Layne Russell, Clark College’s paralegal program director. “Frankly, it is just too new. I would, though, anticipate (their pay) to be more than the pay for a paralegal.”

With their licenses, they’ll be able to help clients select and complete legal forms, inform clients of court procedures and time lines, review and explain pleadings and identify documents clients need to file cases.

Elle Zober, 39, of Vancouver said she plans to pursue the LLLT license when she finishes her paralegal degree at Clark College. She said the license offers a career advancement and a way to support her family. She said she represented herself when she divorced her husband and knows the difficulties of navigating the court system without professional guidance.

“Long term, my goal is to help women in the same situation,” she said. “I managed to do our divorce without an attorney, and it saved us thousands and thousands of dollars.”

So far, family law is the only category of law that has been approved for the license because that is the greatest area of need, but the license may be offered in additional practice areas in the future. The LLLT board will begin considering other LLLT practice areas in August or September, Crossland said.

“One of the unique things about this is they can practice on their own; (unlike paralegals) they don’t need to practice under the supervision of lawyers,” Crossland said. “They can practice in conjunction with practicing lawyers so they work out of the same office. We’re thinking they also could work for a government-funded or volunteer legal-services agency.”

Crossland said business people are still exploring different models for how the LLLTs could be used.

“Every month, we get contacted by business entities asking about new or different ways LLLTs could be employed that we hadn’t previously considered,” Crossland said.

While Washington is the first state to license non-attorneys to give legal advice, California is following suit. Oregon also is considering a similar model, Littlewood said.

“We have been traveling a lot nationally because a lot of states are looking to us,” Littlewood said. “We are blazing a trail.”

Community colleges and the state’s law schools are working in conjunction to provide training for the new license.

Five community colleges, including Clark, have courses aligned for the program. All but Clark have American Bar Association accreditation for classes. Clark is in the process of seeking ABA accreditation; the college submitted its application last month, Russell said.

The other colleges are Edmonds Community College in Lynwood, Tacoma Community College in Tacoma, Highline Community College in Des Moines and Spokane Community College in Spokane.

“The idea is that the bar has vetted each one of those courses,” Russell said.

To be eligible for the program, applicants must have an associate’s degree with at least 45 credits in LLLT prerequisites, which are offered at the community colleges. Paralegals with at least 10 years of experience are exempt from that requirement until 2016.

Once accepted into the LLLT program, students must take 15 credits in online family-law classes from the University of Washington. All of the LLLT law school classes are offered online and at reduced prices as part of the state’s commitment to making the LLLT program affordable and accessible, Crossland said.

Training for the license costs a total of about $12,750, excluding fees. That includes $9,000 for the associate’s degree and $3,750 for the 15 family law credits at UW. As a comparison, a UW law student would pay more than $30,000 per year in tuition.

Professors from all three of the state’s law schools and adjunct instructors who have active law practices teach the courses, Crossland said.

The license also requires students to work for 3,000 hours under the supervision of a licensed attorney and to pass an exam.

“I’m really proud of our Supreme Court, the LLLT board, the community colleges and the law schools for embracing this idea,” Littlewood said.