In 2015, Washington State created a new role in the legal profession called the Limited License Legal Technician (“LLLT”). The LLLT is not quite an attorney but a bit more than a paralegal—he is something in between. The Washington State Bar Association suggests that you “think of them like nurse practitioners, who can treat patients and prescribe medication like a doctor- well-trained, qualified and competent professionals who can provide you with the help you need.“
As of now, Washington is the only state that has adopted this novel approach to providing legal services, but other states such as California, Oregon and New York are studying Washington’s new program and seriously considering implementing it.
So why should you care? Two reasons. First, as a member of a professional calling to serve the public, you should take an interest in any steps taken to make affordable, quality legal services more widely available on Main Street. Second, because you need to be aware of changes to the economic model of our profession so you can be prepared to make informed decisions about your practice, and whether to get out altogether.
One thing is for certain—this hybrid lawyer-paralegal position has gained a foothold in Washington and is likely to expand to most of the United States, and it will have a significant impact on how the legal profession provides services, and how lawyers earn a living.
So What Exactly Is An LLLT?
An LLLT is a legal professional who is permitted to perform certain, limited services that had heretofore been the sole province of licensed J.D.’s. These include:
- Obtain relevant facts from clients.
- Inform clients about possible implications of the law as applied to their cases.
- Advise clients on how best to manage their legal action for best results.
- Prepare clients to represent themselves in court proceedings.
- Perform legal research to answer clients’ legal questions.
- Draft legal documents to be filed with the court
So what remaining tasks are reserved for a J.D.? According to the Washington State Bar Association “Legal Technicians are limited in performing the role of an attorney in three primary ways: (1) They cannot represent clients in court, (2) they cannot negotiate on behalf of a client, and (3) they can only prepare legal documents that have been approved by the Limited License Legal Technician Board.“
Still, there seems to be an awful lot of overlap between what an LLLT and a J.D. are permitted to do. LLLT’s can obtain relevant facts, inform clients, advise clients, prepare clients, perform legal research and draft certain documents. That sounds like ninety percent of our day-to-day work.
My Opinions on this Development
On the one hand, I welcome it. One of the things I noticed, and did not like, during my years of practicing was that I and my colleagues, both plaintiff and defense, had very limited actual contact with clients, and when we did, they were always wealthy people who could afford to pay our high hourly rates. I was very disillusioned by the disconnect I felt between the work I was doing and the impact it had on people and on society at large. As a professional who believes in the lawyer’s role to provide a needed public service, I appreciate any effort to make that service more widely available to ordinary working people. An LLLT is capable, in many circumstances, of providing the legal services most people need without the added expense that would come from hiring an attorney, and that’s good.
On the other hand, it feels like the state bar associations are pulling the rug out from under us. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, and buckets of blood and sweat to become attorneys on the promise, both implicit and explicit, that we would be given entry into a prestigious and lucrative profession. For many of us, it didn’t turn out that way, and a big part of the reason for that is that there are too many lawyers as it is.
The American Bar Association and the various state bar associations, as well as the legal educational establishment need to do a lot of sole searching as they implement and support LLLT programs nationwide. On the one hand, they sanction too many law schools who are admitting too many law students for the profession to absorb, and then on the other they take away what few jobs remain by making them available to a much broader range of individuals with a lot less training. Something has got to give.
LLLTs and You
You can’t stop progress. There is no question that new technologies have automated a lot of the formerly skilled work that attorneys used to do such as drafting pro forma documents and performing basic legal research. It may well also be that you don’t really need three years of law school plus the bar exam to counsel and advise clients on basic legal matters. As with anything else, if technological progress affords a cheaper way to provide a product or service, society will adopt it. Law is not the first profession this has happened to, and it won’t be the last.
So I would look at the emergence of LLLTs as a canary in the coal mine. If you are in a highly specialized field serving high dollar clients, such as patent law or antitrust law, then you’re probably safe, for now. On the other hand, if you are a general practice lawyer or a family lawyer, I think you really need to consider your career options, reflect on your skills and abilities, and make a plan to get out of the legal profession sooner rather than later.
For the great and growing number of us who are not particularly enjoying practicing law, that may not be such a bad thing.