Blog | On The Future of Law

Rethinking the Role of Paralegals

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Seven people passed Washington’s exam to become a Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) out of nine test takers.  LLLTs must obtain professional liability insurance prior to obtaining their limited license to practice law.  No such insurance yet exists and is not expected until August 2015, unless the LLLT works for a law firm, in which case the LLLT is covered under the firm’s policy.  Therefore, no solo LLLTs are expected to be operational until later this summer, assuming they have completed 3,000 hours of lawyer supervised work.  It will be quite some time before LLLTs will have a measurable impact on legal services.

LLLTs are currently only licensed in family law.  My firm, McKinley Irvin, practices family law in Washington.  Some of our paralegals either have completed the program or are currently enrolled.  I’ve heard some feedback from one of our paralegals who completed the program.  She indicated that whereas she learned some new things about property and debt distribution, she was already competent in the areas covered, other than LLLT ethics rules.

Why do paralegals have to go through an LLLT program in order to take on more responsibility within their firms, including responsibilities that might currently be considered UPL?  Rule of Professional Conduct (RPC) 5.3 makes lawyers responsible for the non-lawyers working for them.  It seems to me that experienced paralegals or those otherwise trained by their firms should be able to take on many tasks that are now considered UPL.  In this scenario,

  1. the client would be protected by the attorney RPCs, as well as having professional negligence recourse,
  2. expanding the scope of paralegal activities would require a simple change to the rules,
  3. there would be little expansion of regulator responsibilities, as law firms would take on a self-regulating responsibility per rules and for risk management purposes,
  4. given the ethics rules and the risk of being sued, lawyers would naturally assure their paralegals were properly trained and supervised in whatever tasks and responsibilities were assigned to them (as is currently the case), and
  5. law firms could be more innovative in deploying human resources, which will spur competition, and thus benefit the consumer.

My suggestions here envision no impact on LLLTs.  LLLTs would retain their place in the regulatory framework, at least in Washington State.  But whereas LLLTs are able to work independently of lawyer supervision and lawyer professional responsibility, paralegals would be authorized to engage in legal services currently reserved for lawyers, but only under the supervision of lawyers.  The benefit being that, whereas the LLLT program may produce a few LLLTs a year, allowing law firms to determine for themselves how to deploy paralegal talent would have a far greater and more immediate impact on the marketplace, as we already have a significant population of experienced working paralegals.

By allowing law firms to leverage alternative (and lower cost) human resources in the delivery of legal services, we would enable greater opportunities for law firms to be innovative in delivering legal services.  It is both unrealistic and unfair to expect lawyers to innovate while continuing to hamstring us with outdated and anti-innovative ethics rules.

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