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The New Mexico Supreme Court is considering whether to license legal technicians to meet the demand for lower cost legal services.
Lawyers, naturally, are arguing both sides of the issue. Some say legal technicians can fill the gap in access to justice for those who cannot afford attorneys fees. Other attorneys are not exactly excited about losing business to people who haven't passed the bar exam. But that's what supreme courts are for, right? The justices decide what is good for the law.
But it's not the first time states have let legal technicians practice law.
In a press release, the Supreme Court's administrative office said it has formed a work group to authorize non-lawyer practitioners to handle civil matters. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said they want to "make it easier for the public access court services," as well reduce delays in case processing.
George Chandler, a member of the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice, says everybody deserves justice. But 80 percent of the population can't afford lawyers, he says. "I want to improve access to justice for people who don't qualify for legal aid and free programs, but who can't afford a regular lawyer," he told Courthouse News.
Part of the problem is a reported shortage of lawyers. Court administrators say 21 percent of New Mexico counties have five or fewer lawyers, and two counties have no attorneys. A third of the counties have 10 or fewer. For potential legal technicians of the future, that apparently is a good thing.
New Mexico is not the first state to license non-lawyers to practice law in limited capacities. Washington was the first in 2015, followed by Utah and others who are considering similar programs.
In Washington, it did not exactly become a booming field. After almost two years, only 15 people had earned licenses. The licensing program was also not self-sustaining because of the low enrollment. It is not an easy program, either. Legal technicians there have to receive an associate level degree with 45 credits, plus 15 credits in "core education," such as family law. They also have to work 3,000 hours under lawyer supervision, and pass three exams to become certified.
New Mexico, will come up with its own licensing program -- or not. In the meantime, more lawyers may decide to go that land of opportunity. Some attorneys could have entire counties to themselves.