The State Bar of California is currently considering whether to allow non-lawyers to provide certain legal services, potentially giving millions of Californians affordable legal help.
In California, as in the rest of the country, most people have no way to get affordable access to the legal system. For example, 80 percent of California divorce litigants are self-represented. These people cannot afford a lawyer, and there are currently no other ways to seek legal advice. California is considering creating a license for “limited license legal technicians” (LLLTs), who would generally be people with training and experience as paralegals. LLLTs might be able to offer services such as conducting legal research, informing clients about procedures, helping clients select and complete appropriate forms, thus providing lower-cost help for people with needs that are not complex enough to require a lawyer. Washington state is in the process of implementing a system of LLLT licensing, and it’s likely that California will use Washington’s system as a model.
Licensure of non-lawyers has been debated over the last few months at public hearings of the State Bar of California Limited License Working Group. The overwhelming majority of testimony at these hearings has been in favor of LLLTs. Nearly the only exception has been testimony from lawyers who oppose the idea.
Some lawyers have questioned whether LLLTs will provide competent services. If California follows Washington’s lead, LLLTs would need to fulfill a list of specified prerequisites and will have to pass an examination. After obtaining their licenses, LLLTs would only be allowed to provide a specifically prescribed list of services. LLLTs will therefore be well trained to provide services and will be able to competently provide legal assistance.
Another concern for lawyers (and in some cases a more honest one) is that LLLTs will hurt lawyers’ ability to attract clients. The economics of purchasing legal services indicate that this is unlikely to be a problem. Most people who use the services of LLLTs will be those who could not afford a lawyer in the first place, so LLLTs could hardly be said to be stealing such clients from lawyers. Furthermore, ensuring lawyers’ livelihood is not a sufficient reason to shut down an endeavour that will promote access to justice. Most lawyers provide some value to their clients beyond being members of a cartel that is allowed to provide legal services. Lawyers who are only making a living because they are part of that cartel have no right to hold access to justice hostage to their continuing cartel membership.
The Limited License Working Group's final hearing will be on June 17, 2013, after which it is expected to make its recommendation to the State Bar. For a more detailed discussion of these issues, you can read Responsive Law’s testimony to the Working Group.