Washington Supreme Court Adopts Limited Practice Rule for “Legal Technicians”

Richard Zorza reports that the Washington State Supreme Court has approved the adoption of a Limited Practice Rule for Limited License Legal Technicians. The court order adopting the new rule, APR 28, is available here. As Mr. Zorza notes:

The project offers significant opportunities to get a much better picture of whether non-lawyer practice is practical, what parameters are realistic, and whether it is right that the idea will advance access to justice.  There has been a history in some other states of less carefully crafted programs generating horror stories.

The Limited Practice Rule allows non-lawyers meeting specific certification requirements to provide a small subset of services traditionally provided solely by lawyers. In its Order, the Washington Supreme Court notes the complexity of the American legal system, and the resulting inability of low to moderate income individuals to afford effective representation. The Limited License Legal Technician Rule aims to address this problem by authorizing and regulating “legal technicians” in such fields as family law, where the gap between demand and availability of legal assistance is most apparent.

Despite the good intentions of the new Rule’s proponents, the Northwest Justice Project and Columbia Legal Services have expressed concerns about potential unintended consequences of the new Rule. CLS notes that the Rule may create a “two-tiered” system of justice, where only people of financial means have access to comprehensive legal assistance, while poorer individuals are “relegated to a system that does not provide the full measure of service and justice to which all should be entitled.” NJP points out that:

  1. The Rule does not alleviate unmet needs for legal representation in high-conflict matters;
  2. That the availability of legal technicians may undermine legal aid and self-help services provided by courthouses or other publicly funded entities; and
  3. That potential consumer abuse by legal technicians remains a problem.

The Court, in its Order, addresses these concerns by pointing out the limited scope of activity authorized by the Rule; it notes that the legal technicians, as a group, complement rather than replace full-scope legal representation. The Court acknowledges the possibility of failure, but emphasizes that it is impossible to judge the merits of a novel system without trying it.

Mr. Zorza points to the rapidly growing need for more efficient and cost-effective legal services. Even recognizing that this new rule is an experiment, it remains, as the Court states, a “good start.” Let’s hope it turns into something more.