Will California Succeed Where Washington’s 3LTs failed?

It was a bold idea, one that might well have bridged the gap between the high cost of legal representation and the inability of many to pay the price for the banal requirements of legal advice and assistance to perform so many common tasks. And yet, Washington State’s attempt to make Limited Licence Legal Technicians, or 3LTs as I called them, a thing died.

The reasons are somewhat speculative, as there is no empirical study explaining the problem and the rationalizations are driven by political agendas, those determined to create a lesser tier of legal representation to provide “Access to Justice” (A2J) blaming external causes rather than an inherent failure of the plan.

But Washington State’s decision to end the program was pretty straightforward. There was neither demand nor supply, as nobody wanted to become a 3LT because nobody wanted to use a 3LT. There was no “sweet spot” between what it took to obtain a limited license, cost and time-wise, and a public willing to pay for the services on the back end.

Part of the problem was that people didn’t know about or appreciate the existence of lawyer-lite as a legitimate profession. Part of the problem is that it would take time, probably quite a bit of time, before people trusted 3LTs enough to embrace them. But that meant that people had to choose to train as 3LTs, become licensed, open up shop and wait around for as many years as it took for people to call. If they ever called.

And then they were limited in what they could charge for their services, since it made no sense to go to a 3LT if it was going to cost anywhere near the price of a real lawyer. That was the point, that it would cost far less and be accessible to those who couldn’t afford, or were too cheap to pay for, a real lawyer. This meant that becoming a 3LT was more a matter of public service and charity than feeding the kids. Inexplicably, not a lot of people were into that sort of thing. Go figure.

Even though the idea died in Washington, academics who earned a sweet paycheck anyway and the unduly passionate who join bar associations to make the world a better place have persisted in pushing the idea that A2J can be fixed by tweaking who can deliver legal services. The California bar latched onto this idea, because they are so very hip and empathetic. It started out as so many things in California do, as the worst of the stupidest of ideas, doing away with the requirement of being a lawyer to practice law, to allow non-lawyers to practice law and to own law firms. The argument for it was “but people need it.” The arguments against it eluded the passionate voices of the California bar.

California has since refined its scheme to limit its scope somewhat and has made a new proposal.

The State Bar of California’s Board of Trustees on Thursday gave its preliminary blessing to a proposed “paraprofessional” program by voting to gather public comment on the plan. The public will have 110 days to weigh in on the proposal, which if adopted has the potential to jumpstart the fledgling movement behind legal paraprofessionals, or limited license legal professionals, as they are sometimes called.

When first raised, the California bar didn’t make much of an effort to let their bar know that it was happening, recognizing that lawyers were likely going to be against the scheme for reasons both principled and not. After all, this was going to cut into their business by diverting clients to non-lawyers, and contrary to the assumptions that lawyers all make oodles of money, there are a lot of fully-licensed lawyers struggling to make ends meet.

Once the California bar became aware of what their guild association was up to, they expressed their “doubts.” The bar then commissioned a 1,500 page report* to justify its plan.

Under the proposal, paraprofessionals would be limited to offering services in the areas of consumer debt; employment and income maintenance; family children and custody; and housing. They would not be eligible to provide criminal legal services except for expungements. And they would be limited to specific functions within those areas. Within the employment category, for example, paraprofessionals would be able to handle unemployment and public benefits proceedings. Paraprofessionals would be allowed to appear in court under the current proposal but would be barred from handling jury trials.

What would it take to become a “paraprofessional,” besides a much better title?

Under the California proposal, paraprofessionals would have to complete a J.D. or LL.M, or have completed a paralegal program or be a qualified legal document assistant. They would have to undergo coursework covering court and ethics basics and legal topics specific to their practice areas, as well as 1,000 hours of practical training, testing, and a moral character evaluation.

The program, which the working group estimates would cost $1.65 million to launch, would be overseen by the California Supreme Court, but day-to-day administration would fall to the state bar. Paraprofessionals would come under a disciplinary system similar to the one that governs licensed attorneys.

The new plan is far better than the original knee-jerk scheme, but that doesn’t mean it will fly. The first question is why anyone with a J.D. or LL.M. would become a para rather than a lawyer, but that’s likely because California has a host of unaccredited law schools that churn out J.D.s who can’t pass the bar and become lawyers. But will the requirements for paras suffer from the same problem as the 3LTs of Washington State, too much work to justify the blind risk of a career on the other end, and even if there’s a future as a para, will it be sufficient to earn a living, run a parapractice, survive?

From the side promoting alternatives, who see the A2J problem under the syllogism that “something must be done,” there is a deliberate myopia that prevents them from considering the question “why would anyone want to do this?” I don’t doubt that if crafted properly, limited to the many legal functions that are mostly perfunctory and clerical such that they can be more than well done by non-lawyers, this has the potential to be great for people whose money needs to buy their kids food rather than pay a lawyer to draft a simple will. Indeed, that’s why I proposed the idea that was suspicious stolen by Washington State when they created 3LT.

But if they build it, will they come? The evidence so far suggests that the A2J field of dreams has neither players nor ticket holders. Maybe California will make this happen where Washington State could not. Or maybe, like so many aspirational progressive ideas, the theory sounds wonderful but the reality won’t work.

*I haven’t read the 1,500 page report because I would rather stick needles in my eye.

19 thoughts on “Will California Succeed Where Washington’s 3LTs failed?

  1. El_Suerte

    That money would probably be better spent subsidizing internships for people who want to “read the law” rather than go the law school route.

  2. Hunting Guy

    Sounds like plumbing to me.

    Your average homeowner goes in to change a washer in a leaky faucet.

    No big deal, right.

    They find out the brand is no longer made so they decide to replace the entire unit. The fittings are corroded and one breaks off. Now you have to find the main cutoff, which is in a hole full of spiders in the side yard with six inches of mud on top of it, plus you don’t have the proper tool to turn the valve.

    Get that done and you don’t have the swagging kit to flair the tubes.

    So you end up hiring a plumber to come in and fix your mistakes and the fee is several times what it would have cost to begin with as the professional had the washer on his truck.

    3LT sounds like a good idea but I can easily see a project getting out of hand very quickly. From personal experience, the law is just too damn complicated to have minimally trained people practicing. Someone is going to get in over their head and try to bull their way through and really screw up.

    As a non-lawyer, just my $0.02.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s a fair analogy and a serious problem. There’s a lot of “law” that doesn’t really need a lawyer, per se, but is beyond the skillset of most people and can be fairly easily taught to someone who specializes in doing that narrow niche of law. But then, a certain percentage of that work ends up in trouble and blows up. Will the para see it coming, know what to do if it happens, be humble enough to let the client know that their pipe is about to burst and their house flood? I dunno.

      The other side of this equation is that the practice areas involved are driven by client need rather than lawyer skillset. For example, it covers child custody proceedings, which is an area of law where litigants are very likely to be unable to afford counsel so the need is there. But then, it’s also extremely important and requires substantial skill to litigate. It is not the same as filling in the blanks in a simple will (which really isn’t that simple, but that’s a different issue).

  3. RTM

    New York has for years allowed non-attorneys to represent unemployment insurance claimants. There’s a process for becoming a registered representative and their fees in given cases (just like an attorney’s fees) are subject to approval by the Appeal Board. Since these cases don’t generate much in the way of fees, most attorneys in my experience shy away from them unless there’s another reason, such as avoiding estoppel issues in a discrimination case. Because attorneys generally decline UI cases, the registered representatives fill a void and provide at least a level of representation for those in need.

  4. Skink

    The problem: some people can’t afford a lawyer when they need one.
    The solution: provide a sort-of lawyer-like surfer dude that doesn’t care about keeping the lights on.

    How about the bars just make us do more for less or nothing? I’d happily trade doing dopey CLEs for free work.

  5. SamS

    In the most complex area of law, there are already thousands of non lawyers who provide services to the public successfully, so successfully that most lawyers use them. That is tax law and the preparation of tax returns. Under the guise of providing financial advice, I did give legal advice, always reminding the client that I was not a lawyer and that to go to court they had to have a lawyer.

    During my years of practice, I became as knowledgeable in bankruptcy, simple wills and probate as most lawyers and could handle them as competently and at a lower cost than most attorneys. In my opinion, most lawyers know nothing about bankruptcy and its tax consequences and should not be allowed to file bankruptcy petitions. I developed a very low opinion of the ethics of bankruptcy lawyers. There were dozens of times that I did practice law, filing articles of incorporation using the state’s website.

    In my area, CPA fees are typically half or 40 percent of what a lawyer charges so costs would be lower.
    If a state were serious, all the legislature would need to do is pass a law expanding what a CPA could do. No trial work, no criminal work, but allow a CPA, and the IRS equivalent Enrolled Agent, to handle financial matters.

    1. SHG Post author

      I love my CPA and value his advice, and he knows a good deal about some routine areas of law just as I know some stuff about taxes. Still, I call him and he calls me, not because we don’t know but because we want to be sure what we know is right and we’re not missing anything. Most of the time, we were right, but on those occasions when we missed something, we’re glad we have each other to call.

  6. B. McLeod

    During the early part of the pandemic, toilet paper was really expensive and even hard to find for awhile. Of course, I had prudently stored a couple of the giant packs from Costco, so no issue at my personal abode. Yet, I was moved by a deep concern for others, who may have lacked a Costco membership, or simply moved too slow.

    Looking about, I found I had some unused roofing paper, some old retail catalogs and dated issues of AARP Bulletin. I was able to cut these various materials into strips four inches wide, and then tape them together at the ends with blue painter’s tape. Lastly, I would roll 130 feet or so of taped-together strips onto short pieces of dead fall branches from the back hedge trees. Presto, toilet paper for the desperate unfortunates who were unable to line up the factory produced article!

    To my surprise, however, I found that few (actually “no”) people in the locality were interested in procuring these thrifty and useful creations. Some of them stubbornly resorted to using facial tissue and even disposable shop towels instead. By late 2020, it was obvious I would have to find an alternative use for the whole stockpile, and they ended up as fuel for the fireplaces during that miserably long cold spell this past February. My own fireplaces, I might add, as not many people were out and about in that looking for creative solutions, plus I had really lost interest in marketing the rolls to a seemingly unreceptive public.

    The bright side of it all was that none of my pipes froze, and I kept everything but the attached garage warm enough to move around in, even while the power was out. Still, next time there is a toilet paper shortage, I will let somebody else try to address it.

  7. L. Phillips

    This seems like a solution in search of a problem. I have used the same small (20 attorneys +/- ) civil law firm for almost 40 years. Mostly they have helped me with real estate transactions, structuring and restructuring a family trust, and business in a highly regulated industry. Typically I pay for an hour or two of attorney time at the first interview and the project is handed off to a paralegal in the firm at a lower rate. Works for me and it seems to work for them. I’m guessing my fees are about enough to clean the carpets every couple of years.

    So what is the proposed client base that is anxiously waiting to be served by penniless graduates of the Sam Spade School of Law and Veterinary Assistants who cannot pass a BAR exam?

  8. James

    I could see it being useful for straightforward immigration cases, if I understand the 3LT proposal correctly, as much of that work seems to be filing applications, anticipating deadlines, producing evidence of presence, etc. My wife and I hired a lawyer for everything from DACA renewals to her citizenship application, as well as small things like getting an Infopass stamp – not because the actual filing processes were over our heads but because the downside risk for screwing anything up was massive and small process problems could lead to years-long delays. We could afford a lawyer so we used one, and it was worth it for us, but there does seem like a lot of clerical work that could be done by someone akin to a technician.

    That being said, I also have an immigration lawyer in the family (who we didn’t use but who has shared insights about being an immigration lawyer), and know that the straightforward cases like ours pay the bills, so taking those away might be crippling financially to actual lawyers.

    1. SHG Post author

      There has long been an underground of people getting paid for filling out immigration paperwork, some marketing themselves as “notarios.” Some know what they’re doing. Others are scammers stealing from people who don’t know any better. Immigrants preying on their own is nothing new. But to a large extent, this is exactly the sort of niche work that can be done by non-lawyers, but it will make the practice of immigration law financially untenable.

  9. AnonJr

    Little late… Would this be an area where a different model would work? I used to work for a hospital. The EMT-Bs / EMT-Ps all worked under a physician. They had limited, and less expensive training, and a set of protocols within which they were allowed to work. But they also had a physician for when the situation wandered outside protocols (and to review various calls). Similar for other paraprofessionals in healthcare.

    Would requiring these 3LTs to work under a lawyer provide the needed quality check and guidance for when the situation wandered out of “protocol”?

  10. Lee J Stonum

    A2J is a real problem. So is that of incompetent idiots representing humans in legal matters. The solution to #1 is not exacerbating #2. The requirement of a JD or LLM ensures that the people taking advantage of this will be those who have failed (maybe over and over and over) to pass the bar. The bar’s not easy, but it ain’t that hard either.

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