Access to Justice

Proposal for licensed paraprofessionals in Texas gains steam with commission support

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  • Print.

Texas state outline andflag

“We’ll be looking at everything in the report on an ongoing basis,” says Harriet Miers, chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission. Images from Shutterstock.

The Texas Access to Justice Commission is supporting a proposal to license paraprofessionals to provide legal services to low-income residents.

The proposal, developed by a commission working group, had “resounding support” during a Dec. 15 commission meeting, according to Harriet Miers, chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, who was formerly a chair of the ABA Journal Board of Editors.

But the commission did not back another proposal by its Texas Access to Legal Services Working Group to allow nonlawyers to have an ownership interest in entities that serve the low-income population.

There was “considerable concern” expressed about the proposal, leading to a splintered vote to reject it, Miers told the Journal.

The commission formed the working group after the Texas Supreme Court requested proposals on paraprofessionals and nonlawyer ownership in October 2022. The commission will now provide a response based on its vote.

The recommendations were contained in a Dec. 5 final report by the working group.

The working group recommended licensing paraprofessional to represent low-income Texans in one of more of these areas: family law, probate and estate, and consumer-debt law.

Scales of justice and juridical book Related article from ABAJournal.com: “Following decades of discourse on nonlawyer legal services, questions of motives continue”

Paraprofessionals could perform some tasks within those areas independently and other tasks under an attorney’s supervision.

In family law cases, for example, paraprofessionals could independently handle some matters in uncontested divorces if the cases don’t affect the parent-child relationship and have limited property issues.

In those cases, paraprofessionals could help clients complete and file forms, represent clients in uncontested hearings, provide procedural information (but not legal advice), and communicate with a paraprofessional or lawyer retained by the opposing party on some issues.

The working group said the Judicial Branch Certification Commission, part of the Texas Office of Court Administration, should create rules, qualifications, licensing and a disciplinary infrastructure to ensure that the professionals have necessary training and oversight.

Licensing and regulation should include a character and fitness assessment, an exam and ethics requirements, the working group said. Proposed rules were included in an appendix to the report.

The rejected proposal would have created a pilot program to allow nonlawyer ownership of entities that provide defined legal services to low-income Texans. A licensed lawyer, who would ensure compliance with ethical and regulatory standards, would have to be employed by the entity. Legal advice by the entity would be provided by lawyers or licensed paraprofessionals. Legal advice provided by artificial intelligence would not be allowed, unless reviewed for accuracy.

According to the report, nine states currently permit paraprofessional practice in some form. All require training and licensing. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Utah permit paraprofessionals to practice independently, while Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Minnesota require attorney supervision.

A limited number of jurisdictions—Arizona, Utah and Washington, D.C.—have modified rules to allow nonattorney ownership of entities that provide legal advice, the report said.

The working group sought information from stakeholders using an online survey, focus groups, email and outreach to members of the State Bar of Texas. Stakeholders included law schools, legal-aid providers, paralegals, faith-based organizations, the State Bar of Texas and its committees, attorney regulators and pro bono organizations.

Those stakeholders suggested many ideas that are “areas for potential opportunity,” the report said, including:

  • Allowing bar exam “near passers” who graduated from ABA-accredited law schools to become paraprofessionals. After working under the supervision of an attorney for a certain amount of time, a “near passer” would become a fully licensed lawyer.

  • Creating pro bono incentives, such as allowing pro bono hours to convert to continuing legal education hours or waiving bar dues for completion of a certain amount of pro bono.

  • Mandating pro bono.

  • Creating legal information hubs or kiosks in which people can obtain legal information.

The Journal asked Miers whether the commission would consider any of the “areas for potential opportunity.”

“We’ll be looking at everything in the report on an ongoing basis,” Miers says. “With the tremendous amount of work and participation we had, we’ll be looking at seeing what next steps we night want to take with respect to all of the report.”

The Texas Bar Blog summarized the proposals here.

See also:

“To increase access to justice, regulatory innovation should be considered, ABA House says”

“When it comes to deregulation of the legal industry, divisions run deep”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.