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State Bar & Bar Associations

Jul. 1, 2020

California watches Washington state end nonlawyer licensing

The Washington Supreme Court suspended licensing of new applicants for its program because of high costs and few participants, according to a letter from the court on June 5. The Washington bar reported in May that the costs for administering the license had exceeded revenues by almost $1.4 million.

The California State Bar is looking with caution at the state of Washington's recent decision to sunset limited licensing of nonlawyer legal technicians, according to comments Tuesday.

At the Paraprofessional Program Working Group meeting, Chair Chris Iglesias said there are key lessons to draw from Washington's experiment. "Most importantly, whatever we create needs to represent a viable career," Iglesias said. "I just think we really want to study and see what happened up there and learn from that."

The Washington Supreme Court suspended licensing of new applicants for its program because of high costs and few participants, according to a letter from the court on June 5. The Washington bar reported in May that the costs for administering the license exceeded revenues by $1.4 million.

According to a California bar study in 2019, 55% of Californians experience at least one civil legal problem in their household each year and nearly 70% of them receive no legal assistance.

"The State Bar's Paraprofessional Program Working Group is well aware of Washington's experience," Donna Hershkowitz, the bar's interim executive director, said in an email Tuesday. "We believe that experience will be instructive but in no way definitive as the working group forges ahead developing recommendations for a program relevant to California's needs."

The Washington program was created in 2012, allowing licensed technicians to provide some legal services to clients in certain family law matters if they could not afford to hire a lawyer.

Currently, there are approximately 40 active legal technicians in Washington. For Steve Crossland, chair of the Washington board that supervises the program, one of the lessons California should draw is to make the program widely known to the public.

"We were reluctant to advertise the program until we had people to deliver the services," Crossland said. "I think in other states, they can say, 'Here it is: We've got this license, we have these people, we've got this education program.'"

Crossland also said it took a while to develop the program and make it accessible throughout the state.

The California bar considered the development of similar programs to the one in Washington for several years before launching the Paraprofessional Program Working Group in January. The group is looking into how to expand the scope of practice areas for paraprofessionals.

Heather L. Rosing of Klinedinst PC served on the 2013 Limited License Working Group. Rosing said the Washington decision to end the program was not made because of complaints about the adequacy of paraprofessionals' services.

"What we have learned is that it is important to design the program in such a way that the administrative costs are reasonable," Rosing said. "We have also learned that it is necessary to do outreach to the nonlawyer legal community -- including paralegals, document preparers, and others -- to garner enough participation to make the program worthwhile and to give the consumers an adequate range of choice."

Kendra L. Basner, partner and specialist in legal malpractice law at O'Rielly & Roche LLP, said the Washington decision was taken swiftly without the chance for people to comment. Basner said it should not deter the California bar from finding ways to create a cost-effective program.

"Keeping the status quo is not the answer," Basner said in an email. "For the California Bar to uphold its stated goals of protecting the public and seeking to increase and improve access to justice, the bar must be flexible enough to allow some space for innovation and new ideas to grow within its regulatory framework."

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Henrik Nilsson

State Bar/Legal Education
henrik_nilsson@dailyjournal.com

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