Limited-licensing for Paralegals: It’s Finally a Reality

Eye.woman.blueLicensing paralegals has been talked about for years.  And years.  And years.  It’s been pushed back as long as I can remember.  One objection is that paralegals do not practice law and therefore do not need licensing.  They are supervised by attorneys and it is the attorney’s license on the line.

Another issue was there were no standard requirements to enter the field (i.e., anyone who wanted to could call themselves a paralegal) therefore, licensing would have no real meaning.  In California, some years ago, a stab at licensing called for governance not by the State Bar but under the Consumer Protection Board that also licensed dog groomers, manicurists, and similar professions.  The idea wasn’t well received by the paralegal community.

In a new twist, the Washington Supreme Court adopted the Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) Rule, effective September 1, 2012. Legal technicians are not paralegals.  They are document handlers who provide typing and form-filling services directly to the public for family matters, wills, adoptions, bankruptcy. This rule authorizes non-attorneys who meet certain educational requirements to advise clients on specific areas of law, which have yet to be determined.

With the rule, the Supreme Court established the LLLT Board to administer the program. In late December 2012, the Supreme Court appointed the first LLLT Board, which includes several non-attorneys and a legal educator. The Board must establish an area of the law in which to license LLLTs and seek approval from the Supreme Court for that area of the law within one year.  This includes regulations for professional conduct, exam procedures, continuing education requirements, and disciplinary procedures.

Meanwhile, the California State Bar is taking a hard look at limited-licensing.  According to an article in California Lawyer magazine,the Board of Trustees is considering a  similar program. The licensing program is targeted to legal technicians providing services directly to the public.  At this stage, legal technicians are regulated.  They provide document preparation services directly to the consumer.

The limited-licensing program would provide legal services to the public and allow law students and others who haven’t passed the bar to put their skills to use. Trustee Heather . Rosing said those who can’t afford the services of a licensed attorney are ften forced to turn to non-lawyers because of cost. Although legal aid, pro bono service and court-employed family law facilitators all try to fill this gap, too many people need legal assistance and simply cannot afford it at today’s legal market rates. A limited licensing program, in addition to helping clients, would create an avenue of employment
for law school graduates and legal technicians who haven’t passed the bar, board members said. Engaging in limited practice might be an avenue to eventually becoming a qualified lawyer.

“I advocate the position that non-lawyers should not be allowed to serve the public directly,” says Barbara Liss, senior estate planning paralegal in Santa Barbara, California, “unless they (1) have adequate education, (2) have worked for a specified period of time under attorney supervision — such as a minimum of three to five years, (3) qualify by some form of testing (NFPA, NALA, AAfPE, OLP skills tests already exist which could be conformed as needed to meet this criterion); (4) maintain continuing education (MCLE) requirements that are pre-established and (5) meet bond requirements that are pre-established.

Bonding is not malpractice insurance coverage — which could be costly, but bonding would provide a modicum of protection for any intentional abuses or improper action by the technician's over-reaching beyond the specified limitations established by the legislation creating the position itself.”

Looking to the future, the role of limited-licensed legal technicians can spill over into the law firm.  Take a look at the Nurse Practitioner.  Medical offices and hospitals offer the Nurse Practitioner  directly to their patients.  Entrance requirements include a higher standard of education and solid experience.  

The state bars implementing the limited-license must be aware that generally, legal technicians have nowhere near the education of traditional law firm paralegals now requiring a B.A. degree and paralegal certificate in many states.

It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see that the legal field can leverage the limited-licensed legal technician by creating a new position within the law firm, perhaps a “Paralegal Practitioner.”  This new position can provide upward movement, demand higher educational standards, and provide more profit and better utilization of senior paralegals.  The paralegal position is not going to go away anytime soon. The history of paralegals from day one has been to keep pushing the profession to higher standards.  If executed properly, here’s a great possibility to keep paralegal upward mobility rocking and rolling.  

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