Legal Ethics

Legal technicians may partly own law firms in this state; is ban to nonlawyer ownership crumbling?

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The only state in the nation that allows limited license legal technicians to help civil litigants has gone a step further with a new change to its ethics rules.

The change will allow the legal technicians in Washington state to share fees with lawyers and become minority owners of law firms, Bloomberg BNA reports. A March 23 order by the Washington Supreme Court granted a bar petition to make the change.

A comment to the new rule says that even if legal technicians have an ownership interest in law firms, they cannot supervise lawyers or direct lawyers’ independent professional judgment. The amendment will take effect in the next few months when it appears in the official Washington Reports.

Washington allows limited license legal technicians to help litigants prepare legal documents and provide advice on legal procedures without a lawyer’s supervision. Initially, the program will license legal technicians in the field of domestic relations, according to an ABA Journal article.

Seattle lawyer Sands McKinley, a critic of the legal technician program, says the rule change could be a first step to allowing other nonlaywers to partly own law firms. “If a glorified paralegal can be an owner of a law firm,” McKinley told Bloomberg BNA, “what kind of argument could you make whereby a CPA tax expert from Deloitte & Touche could not?”

Washington State Bar Association executive director Paula Littlewood said bar officials were educating themselves about reforms in other countries. The profession is “on the bleeding edge of [a] paradigm shift” that has transformed the legal services marketplace in other countries and will no doubt reach the United States, Littlewood told Bloomberg BNA.

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