The unmet civil legal need in the United States is staggering. Studies commissioned by the Washington Supreme Court in both 2003 and 2015 quantified this unmet need at between 80 to 85 percent for low- and moderate-income people. For the moderate-income population, that is a family of four making $97,200 per year — not your working poor family, yet fully 80 percent of these families go without the representation they need in basic civil legal needs cases.
HOW IT BEGAN
The journey to the LLLT began in 2001 when the Supreme Court’s Practice of Law Board was charged with, among other duties, recommending to the court a practitioner who could be trained and regulated in a narrower scope than that of a lawyer. The program was developed with two goals in mind: access to justice and consumer protection.
The Practice of Law Board developed the concept of the LLLT based somewhat on that of the nurse practitioner in medicine. That is, the practitioner could be licensed independently but in a scope limited to certain practice areas and within a defined range of duties. Under APR 28, when the LLLT comes to the edge of his or her scope of authority, the rule requires that the LLLT refer the client onto a lawyer for that portion of the representation.
The first practice area recommended by the Practice of Law Board was family law. In the order adopting APR 28, the court signaled heavily that it, too, thought that family law should be the first area. APR 28 also created the LLLT Board, which is charged with developing and overseeing the new license. This oversight of the licensees is done in conjunction with the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA), which is the regulatory agency operating under delegated authority from the Washington Supreme Court to regulate legal professionals in Washington state.
The LLLT Board had many formidable tasks in front of it when it first set out. In essence, it was charged with creating a new profession out of whole cloth. The first order of business was to recommend the first practice area to the court; the board recommended family law and the court approved the practice area in March 2013.
From there, the scope of practice had to be defined along with the educational training required. Exams for licensing were also developed along with a practicum requirement prior to licensure, continuing education requirements, and finding a malpractice insurance carrier since LLLTs are required to carry insurance.
The collaborations that developed during the building of the program are some of the most exciting, and unexpected, aspects of the journey. Family law practitioners worked with the board to define the scope of authority for LLLTs. The state’s community colleges and law schools worked together to develop a three-year curriculum of study.
The first two years of education occur at the community college level, with 45 of the 90 credits required for an associate level degree in Washington being defined in regulation for the LLLT license. After completion of this core education, candidates then spend a year in law school taking 15 credits in family law that are designed to the LLLT’s scope of authority.
Prior to licensure, the LLLT candidate must take three different exams: 1) the Paralegal Core Competency (PCC) Exam at the end of his or her core education; 2) an exam in ethics; and 3) another exam focused on the family law practice area. Once passed, the first two exams do not have to be repeated. However, the LLLT must take the practice area exam in each area they would like to be licensed in. Currently the only practice area is family law, but the LLLT Board is working on defining the second practice area within which they hope to license LLLTs. If a current LLLT wanted to be licensed in the new practice area, they would be required to take the law school classes for the practice area and then take the requisite practice-area exam.
Finally, the LLLT must also complete 3,000 hours of legal work under the supervision of a licensed attorney. As mentioned above, LLLTs must carry malpractice insurance (currently offered by ALPS) and complete continuing education requirements that are reported every three years to the WSBA.
Currently there are 20 LLLTs licensed and working — about half are working in law firms and half are working independently. One is also working for the local legal services provider in her community, which helps limited dollars go further in serving the low-income population in that area of the state. There are many more students completing their education both at the community college level and the law school level.
While the path to the LLLT license was not always smooth or welcomed by lawyers, this past September the WSBA Board of Governors voted to make LLLTs and Limited Practice Officers (LPOs) members of the bar and also designated a seat for a LLLT or LPO on the Board of Governors.
It is an exciting time in Washington, particularly for consumers seeking legal advice at a more affordable rate from someone who is licensed and regulated.