California plan to license nonlawyers draws heated response

REUTERS/Bobby Yip
  • The proposal would create "legal paraprofessionals" in the state
  • Two key state lawmakers have already expressed their opposition

(Reuters) - Attorneys have a lot to say about allowing competition from so-called paraprofessionals in California.

The State Bar of California this week said it had received 1,318 public comments on a proposal that would enable specially trained nonlawyers to offer legal advice in limited settings, such as employment and consumer debt, in a bid to expand access to legal services.

More than 800 people who wrote in during the 110-day public comment period opposed the proposal, and some of the roughly 325 supporters said they would like to see modifications to the plan. Others did not express a clear preference.

The plan to license nonlawyers already faces criticism from some state lawmakers, who said the bar should be focused on attorney discipline and not adding new programs.

“The amount of public comment shows that there is great interest in this item from people with different interests, scopes, and perspectives, and we welcome their input,” the state bar said in a prepared statement.

Washington, Arizona and Utah already have similar legal paraprofessional programs, or are currently piloting them. Washington's program, launched in 2012, is the oldest, though the Washington Supreme Court last year decided to cease offering new licenses.

California would be the largest state to embrace such a plan. Supporters hope it would spur a wider movement toward legal paraprofessionals, who are also referred to as limited license legal professionals. They say paraprofessionals are key to improving access to justice because legal paraprofessionals can provide services at a lower cost than attorneys.

However, the state bar’s board of trustees heard from many opponents in September when it voted to put the proposal out for public comment. In December, the chairs of the state’s two legislative judiciary committees expressed concern over the time and resources the bar has devoted to the proposal’s development.

“Unfortunately, it appears that the State Bar has chosen to divert its attention from its core mission of protecting the public and addressing the critical issues affecting the discipline system,” wrote Assemblyman Mark Stone and Senator Tom Umberg in a Dec. 7 letter to Ruben Duran, chair of the state bar’s board of trustees.

In addition to gaining final approval by the state bar’s board of trustees, both the California Supreme Court and the state legislature would have to sign off on the plan before it could be implemented.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional details about the comments received by the State Bar of California.)

Read more:

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

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