By Aron Solomon
Washington State launched the Limited License Legal Technician program in 2015, with the truly admirable goal of training practitioners to provide affordable, regulated, and skilled legal services to the people in the state who had family law issues but couldn’t afford a lawyer.
Only five years after the launch of what was, on the ground, an overwhelmingly successful program, the Washington Supreme Court turned on the program and ended it. There is little in the legal innovation space more disappointing than putting resources behind a new program to give more people access to justice, seeing promising initial results, and then having the program end before it can get the ultimate traction it deserves. But that’s exactly what happened here. The question that remains is whether Washignton will ultimately be allowed to get away with it.
Because this story isn’t easy to wrap into a package, and because the people being served fall into the often ignored access to justice gap, this story has received far less national attention than it should have. But something is rotten in the State of Washington and those who would be happy that the LTTT simply drift off into its forced sunset may have a lot to answer for when the inevitable legal challenges get off the ground.
Washington’s LTTT was killed off just as the ABA House of Delegates passed Resolution 115 in February, 2020. The resolution “encourages U.S. jurisdictions to consider regulatory innovations that have the potential to improve the accessibility, affordability, and quality of civil legal services, while also ensuring necessary and appropriate protections that best serve clients and the public.” These are all goals that the Washington LLLT license has already met.
For those thinking that the LTTT was a cakewalk and would produce practitioners with a level of training and skill below what is reasonably necessary to properly serve their clients, take a look at the program requirements. Admission and Practice Rule 28 (APR 28) was finalized in 2015 and allowed paralegals meeting certain educational standards and passing a test to perform limited practice in the area of family law in Washington state.
They needed to:
- Obtain an associate’s degree or higher.
- Complete 45 credit hours of core curriculum in an approved legal program.
- Complete applicable practice area courses offered by the University of Washington School of Law.
- Complete 3,000 hours of substantive paralegal experience under the supervision of a lawyer. (this was eventually relaxed to 1,500 hours)
- Take and pass a Practice Area and Professional Responsibility Exam.
Despite the relative freedom of practice, LLLTs are still restricted in three important ways that lawyers are not, in that they are not allowed to:
- Represent clients in court.
- Negotiate on behalf of their client.
- Prepare documents not specified in the LLLT Practice Area list.
And as of early 2015, LLLTs in Washington are also allowed to become minor partners in law firms and share fees with lawyers, making Washington the only state in the union that allows non-lawyer ownership of a law firm. Yet, even though LTs can be part owners of law firms, they aren’t permitted to supervise lawyers in any way.
This entire LT thing really grabbed my imagination, so I spent a few weeks in dialogue with people who have made it through the program and are successfully practicing. Because of the ongoing tension with some lawyers and the potential for further judicial involvement, I am summarizing these conversations and keeping the sources anonymous.
One LT spoke at length about the diversity not only in the clients LT’s serve, but in the people who are attracted to the program itself. They noted that there was a huge diversity in the LT pipeline, including People of Color, as well as those who have degrees of disability that impacted their decision not to go to law school but instead to work hard for their LT license.
The diversity within the program extends outside the program to the diversity of the clients LTs serve who would otherwise have no representation. The support that LTs provide to clients, court commissioners, and judges is huge. Many of these people would say that a pro se individual represented by a LT is so much more equipped to not only better understand the process they are involved in, but also have the correct paperwork and other documentation. This is precisely access to justice in practice – giving people legal help where they would not otherwise have it.
These conversations revealed that aside from the challenge of making it through the LTTT program itself, some LTs noted what was described as a clear stance among some attorneys that LTs were simply not wanted. I was even told that a few key attorneys were willing to try to secede from the Washington State Bar to make their own organization based entuely upon the LTTT issue.
I was also told that in 2015-2016 some attorneys tried to influence the King County Bar Association to change their bylaws to ensure that only lawyers could be members. There was definitely pushback from some LTs who noted that this is a voluntary membership organization that has no business policing members who have been certified by the Supreme Court of Washington. Yet I was also told that many other Washington counties have been happy to fold LTs into their numbers.
Among the people in and around the LTTT that I interviewed, part of the problem is that there has been an ongoing perception that some Washington lawyers feel that the LTTT is a one-year cakewalk program. Every LT I spoke with felt that lawyers had no idea how difficult it is to get licensed and the preparation that goes into that.
One LT even shared the story of over five years of work to get their license given the complexities of their personal situation. From what I learned, this is a person who has the passion and talent to earn a law degree, just not the personal circumstances to make that a reality. My take is that for many LTs, the program took a long time, depending whether the candidate had all the paralegal education needed to start with, which can add at least a year (if the candidate already has a BA) but could likely add two or more years.
Everyone I interviewed was sure to specify that LTs are well aware that they have to be especially mindful of the limits of their role. They have a carefully defined list of prohibited activities. And they have to be comfortable referring clients to lawyers for matters outside their expertise or purview. But these conversations revealed to me a group of dedicated professionals (not “paraprofessionals”) whose daily activities resemble the work of many lawyers. These LTs analyze legal issues, perform legal research, draft legal papers, and provide valuable legal advice to their clients – again, clients who would more than likely not otherwise be able to have counsel.
We can’t lose sight that the Washington LTTT program was born out of admirable stuff. From a legal process perspective, this section of Washington APR 28 speaks to the primary reason the program needs to continue:
A. Purpose. The Civil Legal Needs Study (2003), commissioned by the Supreme Court, clearly established that the legal needs of the consuming public are not currently being met. The public is entitled to be assured that legal services are rendered only by qualified trained legal practitioners. Only the legal profession is authorized to provide such services. The purpose of this rule is to authorize certain persons to render limited legal assistance or advice in approved practice areas of law. This rule shall prescribe the conditions of and limitations upon the provision of such services in order to protect the public and ensure that only trained and qualified legal practitioners may provide the same. This rule is intended to permit trained Limited License Legal Technicians to provide limited legal assistance under carefully regulated circumstances in ways that expand the affordability of quality legal assistance which protects the public interest.
The sad ending – at least for now – is that the LTT program has been killed off (the term being used is “sunsetted”) by Washington State, with the official end next summer, though no new LTTT candidates can register as of now.
Yet it’s clear that the termination of this program is ripe for judicial review. I have heard rumblings from Washington State that a viable case could come forward with the potential to work its way up to the Supreme Court.
If a case coming out of the discontinuation of the LTTT program does manage to climb up the court system, this would be a great thing for access to justice. Far too much of what these LTs do doesn’t need to be done by lawyers. This is a fantastic program that steps in where other initiatives have failed – it gives more people access to the legal system.
In April, Stanford University’s Jason Solomon (no relation) and Nicole Smith wrote a damning white paper on Washington State’s Limited License Legal Technician program. After interviewing key stakeholders and looking at the public record, their key finding was:
“The LLLT program was demonstrating real success in expanding access to justice in Washington,” yet it was “beset by political and structural issues.”
Reading the entirety of this report should leave one not only scratching their head as to why such a critically important program has been shut down, but makes it absolutely clear that the motivations, reasoning, and actions surrounding it are ripe for judicial review that should not end with Washington courts. As the report clearly states:
“The Supreme Court’s reasons for sunsetting – cost and lack of interest – ring hollow.”
Ultimately, my piece truly only scratches the surface – what people in the LT program told me was probably enough for a book. It seems that the most critical legal process issue here is the ridiculous disconnect between the program’s establishment and operation and its abrupt shutdown. For a program designed to help a lot of people in the state in need of access to justice, it’s sunsetting is simply unjust.