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Minnesota has joined the small but growing list of states seeking to broaden legal representation to low-income clients by allowing legal paraprofessionals to give legal advice. In some cases, paralegals may even represent clients in court proceedings if supervised by an attorney.
The pilot program, which the Minnesota Supreme Court recently ordered, will begin in March 2021. The pilot will last until 2023. At that time, the committee overseeing the program will determine whether changes are needed. The goal of the program is to reduce the number of pro se litigants in Minnesota courts.
Minnesota's program is not unique. Arizona, California, and Utah have already implemented similar programs. However, the program's success is not guaranteed. In Washington state, a legal paraprofessional program ended due to its administrative cost and limited engagement.
The interest from the courts in broadening access to justice has a component of self-interest, as well. Pro se litigants in Minnesota, as in other states, are taking up a significant amount of judicial and court resources. This is particularly true in family law and landlord-tenant cases. Many pro se litigants cannot afford representation yet do not qualify for legal aid.
Limited license legal professionals can help otherwise pro se litigants navigate the court system and free up resources.
The Minnesota Supreme Court indicated that not everyone was on board. Historically, some attorneys have expressed concern over whether such a program could cut into client lists, particularly for solo and small-firm attorneys. However, the program could broaden some family and landlord-tenant law firms' reach by allowing them to offer certain services for less to clients who they could otherwise not afford to take on. If Washington is any indication, the number of paraprofessionals seeking a limited license under the pilot program may be limited in any case.
The ABA quoted Associate Supreme Court Justice Paul C. Thissen as saying the supervision requirement is to ensure clients are receiving competent representation. However, it also allows lawyers and law firms to continue to be involved in any case they want to take on for the firm – albeit at a lower price.
The standing committee overseeing the pilot program expects to offer recommended changes, if needed, in 2023. This could involve expanding into other practice areas, removing the attorney supervision requirement, and others. Alternatively, the program could end. It will be interesting to see if the states adopting limited licensing will have success.