One likely future facing the practice of law in the U.S. is now on display in the State of Washington and getting some high-profile publicity this week. This article in The Washington Post tells you almost all you need to know about the introduction of Limited License Legal Technicians (or “nurse practitioners of the legal world” as the article denominates them) into the legal marketplace.
Whether this kind of initiative would ever obtain approval in Tennessee is less than clear, but many aspects of what drove this result in Washington are equally true in my state. It is undeniable that Tennessee also has too many lawyers on the one hand and not enough services being delivered to people in need of legal help on the other. Our Supreme Court has pushed and pushed access to justice and increasing pro bono participation as its primary initiatives for several years now. (In fact, so much so, that if you surveyed lawyers around the state of Tennessee, you’d likely hear some real sniping and disenchantment about what some feel is browbeating at this point.) Yet, the justice gap in Tennessee is still very, very real.
Perhaps the most revealing news is the statement that California, Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico may already be exploring following Washington’s lead. It is difficult to argue, in a vacuum, that the imposition of the lawyer ethics rules on LLLTs wouldn’t be just as likely to provide significant protections to clients as the imposition of those rules on lawyers is. As the piece reveals, most of the new LLLTs in Washington are people who were serving as paralegals – a group we already count on to some extent to be expected to be able to comport their conduct with the professional obligations of lawyers (or else, we couldn’t really justify a rule such as RPC 5.3).
Perhaps more importantly, from a practical perspective, it seems hard to believe that those clients — who otherwise end up adrift on their own trying to handle their own legal needs — wouldn’t consider it to be a risk well worth undertaking to pay lower fees for the services and take their chances that the equivalent of nurse practitioners can provide them with competent services at least as ethically as many lawyers would do.