An American Bar Association task force has recommended that state regulators license people other than lawyers to perform certain legal services. In a recently released working paper, the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education stated, “State regulators of lawyers and law practice should undertake or commit to … authoriz[ing] persons other than lawyers with J.D.’s to provide limited legal services and create certifications for such persons.”
The state of Washington has already begun to implement a program to license non-lawyers and California is considering doing so as well. A recommendation from the ABA that such programs be created could go a long way toward expanding this additional avenue of access to the legal system nationwide.
Of course, the release of a working paper is several steps removed from a nationwide change in policy. Even if these recommendations remain in the task force’s final report (due on November 20), there is no guarantee that the ABA House of Delegates will adopt it as ABA policy. Numerous consumer-friendly proposals about lawyer regulation have received strong support from ABA committees and task forces, only to be shot down by the House of Delegates. And even if the ABA endorses this proposal, each state will be free to accept or reject it in setting its own policy with regard to non-lawyer licensure. Local bars are sure to put up a strong fight over what they may see as non-lawyers infringing on the turf of lawyers.
Nevertheless, this is a significant development in the expansion of legal services to all Americans. If non-lawyers provide simpler legal services, the cost of those services will drop, potentially to a level where they would be affordable to the vast majority of people in this country who cannot currently afford legal help. If nothing else, the coalescing opinions on this point among a group of distinguished lawyers and judges shows how far the legal establishment has come. It appears that at least one segment of the legal establishment recognizes that it is irrational to continue the decades-old monolithic way of educating lawyers that produces newly-minted lawyers who are incapable of providing the legal services that most people need.
The recommendation that limited practice licenses be created is also only one of several dozen recommendations that the task force has put forward. On nearly all of the issues it addresses, the task force has made thoughtful recommendations that would, if followed, give the legal education system the room it needs to experiment with new models that can help both potential legal service providers and their clients.