How lawyers are integrating paraprofessionals into practice
In the months since my first article on Washington limited license legal technicians, I expanded my research to other states’ progress on paraprofessional programs. However, after the last article, there was significant pushback from readers around the business case for paraprofessionals within firms, and I think a deeper dive is warranted, using Arizona’s certified legal document preparers as a model.
During a spirited Twitter conversation on LLLTs, Greg McLawsen of Puget Sound Legal forwarded this article, in which he and another attorney talk about the LLLT program and whether it makes financial sense to bring LLLTs into a law firm setting. I disagree with his premise that it’s difficult to make money with LLLTs within a law firm. Leveraging an LLLT or paraprofessional, who serves a specific segment of the market, allows firms access to additional clients and increases the options for those in need. The comparison between LLLTs and recent law graduates does not make sense because LLLTs are more qualified in family law than any recent graduate, particularly with their 3,000 practical hours. I believe there is a place in firms and in collaboration with firms for the unique LLLT offering at a price point less than attorneys.
Also, as I discussed last time, collaboration between attorneys and LLLTs can generate more business for both. Terry J. Price, the LLLT education director at the University of Washington School of Law, discusses this synergy as follows:
“We have actually been surprised that law firms have been sending their paralegals to the programs. I think they realize that law firms will benefit because they will be able to use additional trained staff to serve clients. I believe that the ‘bread and butter’ for LLLT practice will be well-done parenting plans and child support orders. The benefits to the general public are clear. These are potentially folks who would be pro se and would do the plans and orders without understanding them at all. In this way, they can have plans and orders that are enforceable and that reflect their thinking of their relationship with their children.”
This notion of a niche offering by nonlawyer service providers for otherwise pro se clients provides opportunities for LLLTs and firms to leverage the unique offering because the LLLT does not need to be supervised like a paralegal. The same idea has been working for about 15 years in Arizona with certified legal document preparers. Although my interview below was with Arizona family law attorney Billie Tarascio of Modern Law, the CLDP is not restricted to that practice area. Arizona created the program in 2003, and almost 600 individual and entity providers are listed on 30 pages here. Billie has an interesting perspective because she not only owns the law firm but also runs a legal document preparation company, Access Legal, that both uses technology and employs a CLDP. In addition, Billie has a CDLP and paralegals within her firm. The idea is to create a variety of offerings using the different levels of attorneys and paraprofessionals.
Mary: First, tell us a bit about your practice. Did you know that you wanted to practice family law when you went to law school?
Billie: Shortly before law school, my parents went through a messy divorce. Their breakup, like all breakups, wasn’t pretty. As an adult, I was all too aware of the details and the role that my parents’ attorneys played in the process. Based on this very personal experience, I knew that family law was raw, real, and it mattered. I knew I wanted to do something that impacted people, not push paper, so I went in knowing this was the area of law I wanted to practice.
Mary: Can you explain the CLDP scope of practice?
Billie: In Arizona, any person or entity providing forms/documents or assisting with forms/documents, must be certified by the Arizona Supreme Court. The legal document preparer program certifies nonattorney legal document preparers in Arizona who provide document preparation assistance and services to anyone not represented by an attorney. Legal document preparers may provide general legal information but may not give legal advice. CLDPs are not confined to family law; many help with estate planning, bankruptcy, landlord tenant law or other consumer or small business issues.
The CLDP cannot accompany someone to court, except as behind-the-scenes support. They can provide legal information, which is exactly what Access Legal seeks to do. In addition to documents, Access Legal and the Modern Law firm provide webinars, multiweek seminars, and a DIY divorce book.
Mary: As a CLDP cannot go to court, can you explain your offerings? And the impact on access to justice?
Billie: As background, I was obsessed with the business of law and various business model options. As soon as I learned the nuts and bolts of practice, I began experimenting with limited scope models, contract attorneys, pricing and delivery alternatives. I was convinced that by streamlining practice, we could provide a lower-cost service to the public. Even then, the access-to-justice gap was massive and clear. The mission of my firm was to increase access to justice with a low-cost, pay-as-you-go model.
As time went on, the model provided tremendous lessons in consumer behavior, lawyer behavior and the economics of running even a lean law firm, but the model needed to adapt to become more economically viable. To retain our commitment to increasing access to justice, we relied on the use of technology to deliver information and materials that could be delivered and digested to the public without the use of a lawyer. The firm created a legal document technology that could be used to both automate the firm and deliver documents to the public. That technology became its own company, Access Legal, a licensed certified legal document company.
To provide legal documents and legal document drafting in Arizona, a CLDP license was required. Additionally, a paralegal with a CLDP license needed to be available to oversee the documents. Now, Access Legal provides pro se/per litigants with any customizable documents needed within the Arizona family court system.
Mary: How does this work for the average client?
Billie: When people need help and they cannot afford Modern Law, we direct them to Access Legal, other attorneys who may charge less money, and all the free resources out there to assist them. Access to justice is improved not just by increasing access to attorneys but also by increasing access to useful information and technology that allows people to better represent themselves.
Mary: Finally, I understand that you view the LLLT program favorably. Can you share your thoughts?
Billie: For many people, a trained, experienced and licensed paraprofessional could offer guidance and advice through the family court system. I have had several clients who absolutely could not afford an attorney, who didn’t qualify for legal aid and who desperately needed assistance and guidance. I’d like to see LLLT-type programs implemented and studied in various states to really analyze outcomes, customer feedback and whether the access-to-justice gap is narrowed through the use of LLLTs.
The above demonstrates how non-lawyer services can be both integrated with firm offerings and operated as a separate offering ethically and for the client’s advantage. Billie is triaging clients based on needs and ability to pay with the CDLP filling a niche in both her practice and technology company. Creating a tiered system of legal services is an important step to improve access to justice. A focus on individual’s needs rather than lawyer’s offerings is the essence of the client-centric practice of law. Billie’s success demonstrates how an offering to improve both access to justice and a firm’s bottom line is achievable.
Next time we will look at the impact of the lessons learned from Washington’s LLLT on the design of other state’s paraprofessional programs plus, review Ontario, Canada’s Paralegal program and NYC’s Court Navigator. The latter are both examples of where non-lawyers are in court, a very different approach than the LLLT and CDLP, or proposed programs in Utah or Oregon.
Mary E. Juetten, CA, CPA, JD is founder and CEO of Traklight. In 2015, Mary co-founded Evolve Law, an organization for change and technology adoption in the law. She was named to the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center 2016 Women in Legal Tech list and the Fastcase 50 Class of 2016. She is the author of Small Law Firm KPIs: How to Measure Your Way to Greater Profits. She is always looking or success stories where technology has been used to bridge the justice gap, from pro-bono through low-bono to non-traditional legal services delivery. Reach out to her on Twitter @maryjuetten.