Washington State Leads The Way To Affordable Legal Services

Under the withering cross-examination of Bloomberg Law’s Lee Pacchia, Case Western Reserve Law School Dean Lawrence Mitchell played his trump card:

It’s not clear to me there’s an oversupply [of lawyers] problem at all.

With so many legal needs of the poor going unmet, “finding different paths for people who truly want to be lawyers opens up all sorts of possibilities” for law graduates to find jobs, he maintains.

The answer omitted the most salient detail that lingered in the minds of new lawyers. How are they supposed to eat?  Seven years of school, meaning seven years of tuition and seven years of not earning a living, add up. And then they still need to eat anew every day. The numbers don’t work.

The academic concern for the segment of society for whom competent legal representation is too expensive is admirable, but the lack of realization that there is no possibility that lawyers can satisfy this underserved need unless society subsidizes the cost or supermarkets start giving lawyers free food remains a problem.  There is plenty of unrealistic chatter, but little effort at a real solution.  The promise of “pie in the sky when they die” hasn’t made many converts.

This may well change, and change very quickly. If so, it’s going to start in Washington State.

 Limited License Legal Technicians

 Admission to Practice Rule 28

The Washington Supreme Court adopted the Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) Rule, effective September 1, 2012. This rule authorizes non-attorneys who meet certain educational requirements to advise clients on specific areas of law, which have yet to be determined.

WSBA’s role is to maintain the high standards set for the legal profession while serving as the regulators of this new rule. The goal is to ensure quality implementation aimed at supporting WSBA members and upholding protection of the public. There is no other state with a similar LLLT rule. This rule provides Washington the opportunity to lead the nation in expanding legal services for the people of our state.

Sound familiar? It should, if you’ve been a regular reader here. While the language is different, the concept is remarkably similar to my proposal for the creation of the position of Legal Practitioner,  While Washington is first fleshing out the details of its new position, with the flashy title of LLLT (which I, if I were them, would call 3LT), the concept is nearly identical to mine. Smart guys on that Washington Supreme Court.

One of the greatest fears of legal academia is that law school will be turned into auto mechanic school in an effort to make it practice oriented. In fact, a  bizarrely  disingenuous  debate over this is raging at PrawfsBlawg, reminding thoughtful people how fortunate we are that some of our smarter brethren become scholars rather than advocates. Unlike lawyers, a 3LT will be far more auto mechanic than doctrinal theorist.

Guess what? When your car breaks down, an auto mechanic is what you need. You don’t want a discussion of the effluvia of the law. You want someone who can inexpensively, quickly and properly replace your fan belt.  It doesn’t take Harvard to gain this know-how.

While this will certainly suck some of the low-level, bread and butter work out of lawyering, the fact remains that a generalist education isn’t required to perform more discrete legal services. It doesn’t alter the problem of oversupply, which must eventually be confronted by those profiting off the law school cash machine, but it finally addresses fulfillment of the needs of an underserved population in a society where legal requirements touch nearly every aspect of life.

Will the 3LT be capable of fulfilling that niche? Don’t they need to eat too? Well, sure, but then, they won’t need a working knowledge of Friedrich Nietzsche or European literature to do so. Picture, if you will, a technical school, along the lines of what  Sanford Brown College does for medical technicians, inexpensively  and expeditiously turning out 3LTs fully capable of handling simple wills and trusts, uncontested divorces, UCC and corporation filings. Forget about seven years, and think two years. At night. Over the internet. In their bathrobe.

While they may not be privy to the magic of Kingsfield’s having been taught to “think like a lawyer,” they are more than adequately equipped to distinguish the needs of a client within a niche of law practice. These are not mindless commodity positions, but sufficiently limited so that 3LTs will possess adequate knowledge and discretion to provide excellent legal representation within a very tight practice area.

And the best part of this concept is that it actually has the potential to work, to serve the needs of people who aren’t flush with expendable income, but are capable of paying a reasonable fee for the services they need, if only lawyers would be kind enough to charge a fee that meets their financial situation while sufficing to cover the lawyers’ costs.

Since the downturn has conclusively proven that this will never happen, and as experiments in inexpensive legal representation will never get any better than the current situation of gross oversupply and still no one will to serve the financially modest American, the time has come to recognize that society doesn’t need more Harvard trained lawyers, but could really use some damn good auto mechanics.  And Washington State plans to make sure the every citizen’s car is running like a dream. That’s the future.

9 comments on “Washington State Leads The Way To Affordable Legal Services

  1. Melissa Denton

    As a family law attorney from Washington State, I disagree with your characterizatiions of lawyers as Nietzsche affictionado Harvard types who should be replaced by legal technicians. Our bar association rightly opposed this LLLT rule imposed by our Supreme Court.

    “Uncontested” divorces could be likened to “plea bargained” (agreed, right?) criminal cases more than they approximate mildly disfunctional cars. I doubt that you recommend a technician to do your work and I assure you they shouldn’t take over my practice.

    My “One Lawyer” service [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.] to save attorney fees by sharing legal advice, mediation and document preparation through shared use of one highly qualified attorney is a much better money saver for agreed divorce or other areas of law.

    There is no requirement for cheaper fees and no reason to think that legal technicians will be less expensive than lawyers. Bathrobe education notwithstanding.

  2. SHG

    This is what I would expect, poorly reasoned negative reactions from lawyers who stand to lose their easy money work. No, an uncontested divorce is nothing whatsoever like a plea bargain, and your attempt to make the analogy is shockingly ignorant. As the massive flaw will be obvious to any reasonably senscient reader here, there is no need to explain it. That you don’t see it is reflection on your legal acumen.

    No, there is no “requirement” that 3LTs charge less than lawyer, but if they don’t, people will go to lawyers and they won’t survive. That’s how markets work.

    No doubt your bar association hates the idea. It’s going to hurt your pocket book. I get it. But such a protectionist attitude isn’t going to save the profession. In fact, the legal requirement that a husband and wife who feel constrained to separate are compelled to spend money on a lawyer is a core problem that society has with the law and lawyer.

    Why must their internal strife compel them to put money in a lawyer’s pocket? Must a poor, miserable married couple remain married because they can’t afford the cost of a lawyer? No matter how much lipstick you put on that pig, it’s still a pig. Sorry that your easy money is going elsewhere, but adjectives around legal services doesn;t mean there is money in people’s pockets to squander.

  3. David Sugerman

    My ears pricked up when I heard about the Washington rule. It is alluring, but there are dangers and devils in the details.

    While it may seem slightly wide of the mark, I had a coffee spitting moment over a training program involving the likes of Sanford Brown. I am serving as class counsel in a consumer fraud class action against their parent corp., Career Education Corp. the for-profit trade school model is as bad, if not worse, than law school abuse. As with law schools, which drove us to this point, this is fixable by a return to non-profit/education as public structure model. It may seem like niggling detail. In fact it threatens to put us on another train to ruin.

    Aside from this, it will be very tricky to figure out scope of the technician’s ability. Good and honest people who practice in disparate areas do not recognize limits within other areas. This is not to say “screw it,” or “impossible,” but more about the difficulty inherent in systems that go from simple to complex in short order.

    I suppose a cynic might sniffle that it is easy for me to support this because legal techs will not handle consumer fraud class actions or complex cases. Still IF carefully moved forward it holds promise.

  4. SHG

    Let’s not get hung up on the delivery mechanism, whether it’s a for-profit or not. To the extent there is something to be taught, someone will teach it. And if the for-profit model takes advantage, there is someone (like you) to smack the living crap out of them.

    I agree that the devil is in the details, the limits of authority, and address that to a degree in my Legal Practitioners post. One of the foremost difficulties in defining parameters, and crafting consequences for exceeding them, is that the people who know best are likely to be the least cooperative. My expectation is that this will change once it’s understood that this new technical position is going to happen, either with their help or without it.  And if it happens without it, the likelihood is that it will be worse for them than it needs to be. 

    Enlightened self-interest is always a great motivator.

  5. Brandia

    I am weighing in as someone who was forced to use the public defense system, I have learned enough to advocate for others & I have been trying to figure out how to get into the legal field & make a difference but if I can’t afford an attorney, law school is too far out of my view. I seen this & cried, I can finally make a difference to others!!! I am signing up for classes as soon as they are available. I don’t suspect that the WSBA is going to welcome me with open arms as I have blogged about their lack of action on many occasions. I also am prepared & fully expect to be the brunt of many attorneys wrath. I can think of thousands of ways to help, I have a background in accounting, so I can help folks with bankruptcies, I have a background in adjudication so I can help folks with taxes, uncontested divorces, parenting plans, estate planning, contracts, wills, foreclosures, probates, any number of things. The possibilities are endless in the ways I can help people, I can also teach & advocate: A whole new world has opened up for me. As for whether LLLT’s will be a disservice to the community, the only community that will be profoundly affected is the one who has the monopoly on the legal field for so many years. I guarantee you I have more law textbooks & digests then most attorneys have seen in their 7 years in law school & I have actually read almost all of them. I am praying that they add mediation to the list of activities that we can do. Remember my name, in 2 years or less you will see a LLLT after it.

  6. SHG

    As should be apparent from the post, I support the idea of 3LT (I hate the LLLT acronym, so I refuse to call it that). But one of the gravest concerns is that 3LTs will overestimate their grasp of law and authority to practice, and it’s a very real concern. A 3LT will not have the scope and depth of education and experience of a lawyer, and a critical piece to the efficacy of the position will be a clear deliniation and appreciation of its limits.

    In other words, the possibilities are not “endless,” but need to have a very clear end. Reading 100 cookbooks doesn’t make you a chef. Reading 100 lawbooks doesn’t make you a lawyer. Nor does a passionate desire to help people make you competent to do more than what you’re properly trained to do.

    Your complaint about the “monopoly” is more ironic than you realize. As a 3LT, you too will have a piece of that monopoly, and you will come to apreciate that passionate but untrained people can do enormous harm, even if they don’t appreciate it or believe otherwise. The scope of the position has yet to be determined, but while working within that scope could be significant benefit to the community, exceeding it could be very detrimental. Without this understanding, there will be resistance to the idea, and there will be good reason for it.

    My advice is to curb your enthusiasm. Overreaching feeds those who are against the position. Show the lawyers that the 3LTs not only want to help others, but realize the limits of their function and are prepared to adhere to them. If 3LTs can’t be trusted to honor the scope of the position, then the idea will fail.

  7. Brandia

    Point well taken, that is why as much as I have read & as much as I “think” I have understood, I still know there are limits. My hope & this was my suggestion I sent in tonight was that they create some type of an internship program so that an attorney can monitor their progress & help them (me) define very clear boundaries. There is a meeting on the 21st I am going to go to to help me understand more of the scope of what our functions would be. I just got so excited that I could make a difference some way & some how that my mouth got away with me

  8. SHG

    I can appreciate your excitement. This is a huge change, and one that opens a door for many that would otherwise never be available. Remember that one of the things that affects a lawyers’ ability to do her job well is the ability to remain dispassionate and focused. When we let our mouths get away ourselves in court, we get into terrible trouble. It’s one of those skills needed to be effective advocates.

    Best of luck.

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