Caution on the Road to Limited License Legal Technicians

Proceed with Caution

The Washington Supreme Court, when it adopted the Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) Rule, wrote of the need for this new profession due to the large gaps in accessing legal services for low-income and moderate means persons. Despite widespread recognition of this gap, the creation of the unprecedented LLLT has been met with skepticism by many attorneys. While the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington (LBAW) agrees wholeheartedly with the Washington Supreme Court on the need to provide a broad range of affordable legal services to low- and moderate-income populations, the experience of our communities in dealing with non-lawyers providing legal services gives us pause.

Unscrupulous “immigration assistants” and notary publics advertising themselves as notarios — a Spanish-language term for lawyers in certain Latin American countries — have preyed upon immigrants from Latin America for years. This has cost Latino immigrants thousands of dollars, their jobs, and the chance to live legally in the U.S.  An investigation by the state attorney general and subsequent agency request legislation led to the passage of SB 5023 in 2011, which ended these types of non-lawyer legal services. Immigrant populations are particularly vulnerable to these types of abuses, due to language barriers and unfamiliarity with the American legal system, and there is a fine line between non-legal clerical services and practices that constitute the practice of law.

The LLLT Board wisely limited the first practice area to a single subject area: family law. As the Board gets closer to finalizing plans, we encourage them to develop a comprehensive public education program that clearly describes the limitations surrounding the services that LLLTs will provide. These outreach efforts should also be conducted in as many languages as possible to ensure that immigrant communities have access to this information in their native languages.

Discussions are already being had on the next practice area to expand into. One of the areas being discussed is immigration law. Given the aforementioned abuse in this area, LBAW would urge careful consideration and engagement with practitioners in whatever field is next being considered. Indeed, prior to deciding the next field to expand LLLTs into, a study of the positive and negative results of the first area of practice should be conducted.

As the LLLT Board moves forward in crafting education requirements, licensing, and rules of professional conduct for this new profession, we support the LLLT Board in engaging the legal community and minority bar associations to engage in this process and ensure that the system eventually adopted meets the stated goals of this new profession — a system that provides affordable, needed legal services to persons previously unable to attain them while protecting them from fraud and misconduct.  As the Supreme Court stated in their rule establishing LLLTs, “Our system of justice requires it.”

3 thoughts on “Caution on the Road to Limited License Legal Technicians

  1. John McDonald

    I am glad to see even slight skepticism from someone of Mr. Mendoza’s prominence and leadership about whether LLLTs will be able to successfully meet the needs of the profession and whether, in fact, LLLTs will fill the vacuum the Supreme Court alluded to, namely providing professional legal assistance to people of little or no means to hire an attorney.

    I number myself among the skeptical for a number of reasons, one of which includes a personal disbelief that someone without the rigorous professional education lawyers experience and oversight of the same standards each must meet will ever provide professional services adequate to the requirements of the profession and the courts.

    I hope my early presumption is quickly and successfully rebutted and that the Bar Association hasn’t simply found yet another way to diminish professionalism and pride that lawyers feel most days. I never bought the program put forth by bar associations that it was OK to let title companies draft real estate documents; permit companies pedaling forms to compose bankruptcy and family law petitions; to let bookkeepers create corporate documents for companies; or to allow without any intervention whatever to permit websites to offer legal advice and form completion counseling about wills, trusts, and probate. After all, if these unlicensed people can create the forms and complete them, why would anyone so inclined ever seek the advice or counsel of a real lawyer.

    While a “test” group, here those in need of “family” law services, is one way to monitor the abilities and success of the program in one very limited area of law, another approach the Bar might consider is to do what it is supposed to do to ensure a high degree of professional behavior and integrity, namely to go after and shut down those who purport to practice law but who, in reality, have met no educational standards, no legal licensing requirement, taken no examination to test skills, or provide no individualized legal couseling, indeed to submit to none of the tests that lawyers must painfully submit to in order to practice their profession. Anyone who has read a Legal Zoom document knows what I mean, but I wonder if the Bar has ever sent LZ a letter inquiring about its practice of law.

  2. Ken Masters

    Excellent article — thank you, Mr. Mendoza. I agree that a cautious approach is crucial here, as the WSBA’s primary duty is to protect the public. The WSBA does that both by regulating the practice of law, and by serving our members, connecting them to the resources they need to provide competent, ethical representation to the people of Washington. I know that the WSBA is very aware of the concerns you rightly express regarding predatory behavior by unscrupulous non-lawyers.

    As you know, however, many of our populations are underserved, and the Supreme Court adopted the LLLT rule to attack this serious shortfall. In contrast to the unscrupulous non-lawyers you mention, the LLLTs will receive ethics training and in-depth instruction in their strictly limited substantive legal area, they will be tested on their ethics and knowledge before being granted a limited license, and they will be subject to appropriate regulation after they are narrowly licensed.

    Of course, the WSBA worked closely with experienced family-law practitioners in choosing and developing that limited practice area — and it continues to do so. I am confident that before another limited practice area is chosen, the same outreach will be made (indeed, I am aware that immigration attorneys have already been consulted and have expressed similar concerns to yours). Your concerns are valid and are being heard.

    I also agree with you that before we strike out to create any other limited practice area, we should see how this family-law experiment works. If it helps us to actually deliver much-needed competent legal services to underserved populations, it will be a good thing.

    Thank you again for your post. And of course, although I’m a WSBA Governor, I do not speak for the WSBA here, only for myself.

  3. markpattersonlaw

    I know only one person taking the path to LLLT. She worked for me for a number of years as a paralegal, as well as my uncle. I can say without hesitation she would be clear about the boundaries of her license and competence.

    Having said that, she is one person, with a long career in the field behind her, and significant associations with many, many lawyers. I suspect she is the person the court had in mind in adopting this rule to serve the public.

    I remain as worried as Mr. Mendoza about the applicant without this background, and in particular the perception of the immigrant population an officially sanctioned technician might be as good as a practicing attorney in discerning and addressing any given issue which might arise in the process. We are to them, a foreign culture, and what we might grasp as common knowledge might not necessarily be so.

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