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The LLLTs Are Coming: Should Lawyers Be Afraid?

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

"They're terkin' 'er jerbs!" That's ostensibly the sound of lawyers, angry that non-lawyers are muscling in on our "profession." The latest target of our collective outrage is the Limited License Legal Technician, a type of legal job that as yet exists only in Washington state.

Once just an idea on paper, the first generation of LLLTs is ready to take its licensing exam in March. Should lawyers be afraid of LLLTs?

There's no 'RN' in 'LAWYER'

Probably not. LLLTs are not some sort of bargain-basement replacement for lawyers. For one thing, LLLT students have to take 45 hours of core curriculum through an ABA-approved law school or paralegal program. This core curriculum consists of civil procedure, contracts, legal research, and professional responsibility, among other familiar classes. This is a little over half of the credit requirements that students face at ABA-accredited law schools.

Law is unique among licensed professions in that there's no gradient of who can provide services. You're either a lawyer, or you're not. "Our legal systems desperately need the equivalent of nurse practitioners and other non-MD health care providers," USC law and economics professor Gillian K. Hadfield told the ABA Journal. Hadfield advocates expanding the profession to include licensed non-lawyers. Ostensibly, these non-lawyer professionals would bridge the "justice gap."

Mind the Justice Gap

Wait a minute: How can the ABA maintain that there's a "justice gap" when law schools graduate enough students each year to depress the legal job market? Simple: With debt loads in the $100,000 range, newly minted lawyers can't afford to take public interest jobs and have to look at BigLaw instead, or charge upwards of $100 an hour in solo or small practice firms.

There are two legal markets. The one for large corporations -- represented by the BigLaw firms that everyone wants to work for -- is over-served, while the one for regular people is under-served. Half the people who seek help from legal aid are turned away, reported The New York Times in 2011, thanks in part to Congress' continued underfunding of The Legal Services Corporation.

So that's where non-lawyer professionals come in. LLLTs in Washington are permitted to practice only in a defined practice area. The need to serve regular people, facing regular problems, is probably why the first practice area in which Washington's LLLTs will be eligible is family law. Issues like divorce and child custody are relatively simple for a person versed in the law, but complicated enough that lay people may need help understanding how it works. LLLTs can go beyond merely assisting with filling out self-help forms and give actual legal advice.

In much the same way opponents of immigration claim that immigrants take jobs from Americans, the data show that immigrants actually do the jobs that Americans don't want to do for the wage that gets paid. Similarly, poorer Americans' lack of access to legal help demonstrates that LLLTs -- far from "terkin' 'er jerbs" -- will do the jobs that law school graduates and lawyers won't do or can't do for a price that low-income people can afford.

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