You are here

Non-Lawyer Practitioners - A Coming Trend

The last column discussed the issue of the lack of affordable legal services to the middle class even though there appears to be a surplus of lawyers available to provide those services. One reason for this situation is that the cost of obtaining a law degree (in both time and money) is so high that the fees necessary to recover and earn a return on the investment require a fee structure that prices legal services out of the reach of many.

The use of licensed paralegals has lowered some of the costs of providing legal services, but paralegals must work under the direction of a lawyer. Another solution to this problem is to create a new class of legal provider, analogous to a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant in the medical profession, who can perform certain services without supervision. This class of provider would be trained at a lower cost than attorneys and could provide limited services at a lower fee. This subject is the topic of many discussions in the blogosphere and is the subject of an extensive note in the Cardozo Law Review [35 Cardozo L. Rev. 2043 (June 2014)].

A recent application of this solution is in the State of Washington where its supreme court adopted a rule allowing for the licensing of “Limited License Legal Technicians”. These practitioners will be able to provide legal assistance, including advice to unrepresented litigants, but will not be able to represent litigants in court. The program to license these practitioners in specific areas of the law in currently in progress. Arizona has provided for “Certified Legal Document Preparers” who can perform certain functions normally performed by lawyers. California has instituted the categories of “Legal Document Assistant “and “Unlawful Detainer Assistant “with similar capabilities.

There are two ways of looking at the economic impact of programs such as these on the legal profession. In a macro view, the programs should have a minimal impact. By far the majority of people using a “legal technician” would otherwise go unrepresented. In fact, much as a nurse practitioner may refer a particular case to a physician, there will be instances where the legal technician will refer cases which otherwise would never receive attention to lawyers.

On the other hand, in a micro view, there will no doubt be cases where the specific client will refer a simple matter to a legal technician rather than a lawyer simply because it is cheaper. These situations will either take business away from a lawyer, force the lawyer to reduce fees to match that of the technician, or encourage the lawyer to have technicians on staff to perform the work (much as doctors have nurse practitioners on staff).

To date, the organized bar has not been uniformly supportive of the development of non-lawyer legal practitioners. Support has come from the bench and the lay public. The consensus in the press and blogosphere, however, is that more and more jurisdictions will provide for the licensing of non-lawyer practitioners. The bar should prepare for the change.