'A very big deal.' Nonlawyer licensing plan clears hurdle in California

A man walks through the street carrying a briefcase in Manhattan, New York City
A man walks through the street carrying a briefcase in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., August 19, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • The public is being asked to weigh in on legal "paraprofessionals"
  • They've been described as the legal equivalent of nurse practitioners

(Reuters) - California is on track to become the largest state to let specially trained nonlawyers offer legal advice in limited settings, such as employment and consumer debt.

The State Bar of California’s Board of Trustees on Thursday gave its preliminary blessing to a proposed “paraprofessional” program by voting to gather public comment on the plan. The public will have 110 days to weigh in on the proposal, which if adopted has the potential to jumpstart the fledgling movement behind legal paraprofessionals, or limited license legal professionals, as they are sometimes called.

Washington, Arizona and Utah already have similar programs, or are currently piloting them. (Washington has the oldest such program, launched in 2012, though the Washington Supreme Court last year decided to cease offering new licenses.) The programs aim to improve access to justice for people with legal needs who can’t afford an attorney by providing a lower-cost alternative. Paraprofessionals are often described as the legal equivalent of nurse practitioners.

“I think California being a big state and putting so much work into looking at whether something like this ought to move forward — I think it would be a very big deal and a signal that this is an idea worth pursuing,” said Jason Solomon, director of Stanford Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, noting that all the existing legal paraprofessional programs are small or in their infancy.

But many attorneys spoke out against the proposal during nearly two hours of public comments to the board Thursday, saying it could damage the public's trust in the legal profession and put clients at risk of unqualified paraprofessionals. They also took issue with a provision in the proposal that would allow nonlawyers to own up to 49% of a law firm. Many requested more than the originally proposed 60 days to weigh in on the proposal, prompting the board to adopt a 110-day comment period.

California has been toying with a legal paraprofessional program since the late 1980s but got serious about the effort in 2018. A report on the state’s justice gap released the following year highlighted a widespread need for greater access to legal help. It found that 55% of residents encountered a legal problem in the past year, yet 85% of them either received no help or inadequate help.

In March 2020, the bar’s board of trustees appointed the California Paraprofessional Program Working Group and tasked it with developing recommendations for a program under which nonlawyers with special training would be able to offer legal assistance. That working group on Thursday submitted a nearly 1,500-page report with its recommendations, which the board discussed and approved for public comment.

Under the proposal, paraprofessionals would be limited to offering services in the areas of consumer debt; employment and income maintenance; family children and custody; and housing. They would not be eligible to provide criminal legal services except for expungements. And they would be limited to specific functions within those areas. Within the employment category, for example, paraprofessionals would be able to handle unemployment and public benefits proceedings. Paraprofessionals would be allowed to appear in court under the current proposal but would be barred from handling jury trials.

“The question of whether paraprofessionals should be able to assist their clients in court was one of the most difficult issues addressed by the [working group],” the report said.


Arizona State University Professor Rebecca Sandefur, who studies access to civil justice, said in an email Thursday that the success of a paraprofessional program in California depends its design and implementation.

“If there are lots of upfront requirements it will be difficult for people to enter the occupation, so few will,” she wrote. “If the paraprofessionals are not able to give legal advice and appear in court, they will not be able to be very helpful.”

The public will also need to be educated about the existence of paraprofessionals and their role, she noted.

Under the California proposal, paraprofessionals would have to complete a J.D. or LL.M, or have completed a paralegal program or be a qualified legal document assistant. They would have to undergo coursework covering court and ethics basics and legal topics specific to their practice areas, as well as 1,000 hours of practical training, testing, and a moral character evaluation.

The program, which the working group estimates would cost $1.65 million to launch, would be overseen by the California Supreme Court, but day-to-day administration would fall to the state bar. Paraprofessionals would come under a disciplinary system similar to the one that governs licensed attorneys.

The proposal calls for the program to roll out in phases, starting with the housing; collateral criminal or expungements; and family, children, and custody areas. It would start in just 10 of the California’s 58 counties. The working group has not settled on a name for the paraprofessionals but offered up three options: Limited License Legal Practitioner; Limited Legal Practitioner; or Limited Legal Advisor.

If the State Bar of California adopts the proposal after the public comment period, it would still require the approval of both the California Supreme Court and the state legislature.

Read more:

Arizona clears way for non-attorney law firm co-ownership in bid to boost access

Washington state to end program that gives non-lawyers limited license

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com