Q: What do you call 1,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start.
Every lawyer knows this old joke. Frustration with lawyers, legalese, and attorney fees lead many non-lawyers to agree with the sentiment — or even ask how they can help. But for many people in our state, inability to access the legal system due to these barriers is no laughing matter. For working families and low-income Coloradans, addressing even simple legal situations is beyond their means.
In order to address this disparity, the Colorado Supreme Court Advisory Committee has studied a new program already implemented in the state of Washington to allow non-lawyers to provided legal services at reduced fees. The Washington “limited license legal technician,” or LLLT, program allows non-attorneys with demonstrated expertise to provide legal services in very limited capacities. By doing so, Washington intends to drive down the cost for very basic legal work to make it more accessible to people who would otherwise have no other recourse.
To ensure it protects the rights of its citizens, Washington’s LLLT program imposes strict and substantial requirements on LLLTs. In order to provide service, an LLLT must obtain, at a minimum, an associate-level degree with 45 credit hours in core and practice-area courses, including civil procedure, legal research, writing, and procedure, and professional responsibility. Once complete, an LLLT must pass exams testing competence. No LLLT can be admitted without first gaining 3,000 hours substantive law-related experience supervised by a licensed attorney.
It is not an easy path.
Even after admission, the scope of work permitted to LLLTs remains narrow. For now, Washington only allows LLLTs to practice in domestic relations and family law. While these areas affect people from every socio-economic strata, Washington found that the costs to hire an attorney — even for very basic functions — effectively barred access to low-income families. Consequently, families became locked in legal limbo, unable to afford the process to create equitable resolutions and allow them to move on in their lives.
Now, with the assistance of reduced-cost LLLTs, more people can access assistance drafting parenting plans or child-custody agreements. LLLTs can help clients file restraining orders for those caught in dangerous domestic environments and divorce documents for spouses in irreconcilable marriages. And when legal issues become too complex for an LLLT, or court appearances become necessary, they can help clients find the right attorney.
Depending on demonstrated success of the LLLT program, Washington may expand the scope of admission to include areas such as real estate transactions and simple contract drafting.
Along with several other states, Colorado will be watching Washington closely. If it succeeds there, maybe fewer Coloradans will root to see the chain gang at the bottom of the sea.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and legal scholar at the Denver law firm of Hackstaff & Snow LLC.