Is The Washington State Experiment Committing Suicide? (Update)

It was a remarkably bold move when Washington State embraced the concept of Limited License Legal Technicians, or 3LTs as I’ve called them. There has been no shortage of truly bad, really unworkable, ideas to address the Access to Justice problem, but this was an idea that seemed to have merit. No, there was no assurance that this was “the answer,” but at least it was a sound effort.

And so, it’s imploding.

Last month, nearly the entire Practice of Law Board resigned along with several former or prospective Board members who had been nominated and were awaiting appointment or reappointment to the Board. We are a group of dedicated volunteers with decades of experience serving on a wide variety of professional and community boards and organizations. We have a deep commitment to and long track record of increasing access to justice. The Board’s mission is laudable and we could have accomplished much to help increase the availability of legal services to the public if we had been allowed to do our job. Instead of advancing our mission during the past two years, we have spent more time and energy responding to and fending off the Washington State Bar Association’s efforts to undermine and eliminate our Board.

What? You weren’t received with adoration and applause.  How horrible. You had detractors. How terrible. Your efforts were met with challenges. How awful. You are volunteers. How sad for you.

This group whine notes numerous times that the members of the board tasked with making 3LTs work were volunteers.  So what? You took on a responsibility, with full knowledge that you weren’t getting paid for it, and now emphasize that you’re doing everybody a favor, as if that’s an excuse for being such whiners? Nobody forced you to take a position on the board. Nobody lied to you that you were going to get filthy rich for doing so.  Nobody told you it was going to be easy and the bar would adore you for it.

The treatment of the Practice of Law Board over the last three years is a textbook study on how to discourage and disempower a board comprised of volunteers: oppose their mission; cut their budget; withhold meaningful staff support; personally attack and seek to oust the volunteers who disagree with you; conduct secret meetings to discuss the future of the group without informing its volunteer members or inviting them to participate; dismiss or reject out of hand the volunteers’ concerns; and replace the group’s members and leadership team. There is no surer way to demoralize a group of volunteers and undermine their good intentions.

There is no surer sign that you are a bunch of wussies than whining that everybody didn’t applaud your good intentions. Rut roh, somebody held a meeting and didn’t invite you? You must have cried yourself to sleep that night, feeling so left out and demoralized. And you’re volunteers! Did I mention that?

The Washington State Bar Association, on the other hand, is comprised of saccus magnus penium.

“Access to justice and the protection of the public are unwavering commitments shared by the Washington Supreme Court and the Washington State Bar Association,” Robin Haynes, president-elect of the Washington State Bar Association, said in the statement. Haynes also said that the Board of Governors has forwarded a list of nominees to the POLB for consideration by the supreme court.

Cool story, bro.  And total nonsense, of course.  Let’s be honest here. The Guild is circling the wagons to protect the bread and butter work for starving lawyers that will be siphoned off to 3LTs. The bar has its concerns and wants to see this experiment die a brutal painful death so its desperate members can live. See? A little truth won’t kill you.

The problem with 3LTs isn’t protection of the public, though it makes for a good talking point. If the program is sound, well-conceived and properly implemented, the public will be fully protected and have access to (hopefully) more affordable legal representation for the most mundane of matters. It’s not all rocket science.

But there was another problem that was completely ignored by the wild-eyed zealots promoting A2J that should have been obvious. Then again, zealots tend to suffer from pathological myopia, so they’re blind to the obvious if it doesn’t conform to their agenda.

This experiment was a good one, but is happening in a vacuum. That won’t work, and it was doomed to meet resistance because of it. The concept of 3LTs had to be a part of an overarching solution to deal with the multitude of problems facing the legal ecosystem. Instead, it separated the problem of affordable legal care from the problem of starving lawyers.

There won’t be a legal profession (to do all those cool things that remain in the exclusive purview of lawyers) if lawyers can’t earn a decent living. You think lawyers are making enough money? Who cares what you think? If smart people aren’t going to law school because they fail to see sufficient benefit to justify three years of tuition plus three years of opportunity costs, your vote doesn’t matter.

But lines were drawn, teams were chosen, and nobody had the good sense to take the long view of what was happening and how it all fit together. Well, I did, but nobody who mattered.

Of course the proponents of 3LTs were going to meet resistance. Your gushing about the poor and cheap who don’t want to pay legal fees was entirely one-sided. You didn’t think the people from whose mouth you were taking food would be happy about it, did you?  And so, the Washington State Bar tried to undermine your efforts, to “demoralize” you. And you’re volunteers! Did I mention that?

And confronted with a group of lawyers who were being impacted by your fabulous new concept, what did you do?  You resigned.  Well, great, that will show ’em.  That’s the way to be bold and daring in the face of adversity, quit.  They’re so mean. They won’t help us. They don’t love us.

If the experiment of Limited License Legal Technicians fails, and it’s beginning to look pretty certain that it will, it won’t be because of the Washington State Bar Association’s refusal to facilitate your good intentions.  It will be because you lacked the foresight to realize that there are conflicting problems, all worthy of being addressed, and not just your little piece of heaven.  But mostly, it will be because you lacked the fortitude to stand up to the challenge.

The going got rough, and you quit. This is not the way to make a bold experiment successful.

Update:  Not to be out-wussified, the WSBA has replied to the POLB letter:

The Board of Governors also fully supports the Limited License Legal Technician program and will continue to support initiatives that examine alternative service providers, with the goal of expanding outreach and access to the justice system for the public.

Of course you do.

It is of deep concern that the letter personally attacks individual staff. The integrity, competence and character of WSBA staff are unquestionable, and it is undeserved and unconscionable for individuals to attack and discredit them.

Anything else that’s really critical to say?

As the governing body of a self-regulated profession, the Board of Governors relies on its volunteers who contribute time and expertise on boards, committees, task forces and councils.

Ah. So volunteers. Well then.

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