More states are allowing non-lawyers to represent people in civil court matters as the gap in access to legal counsel grows wider between those who can afford attorneys and those who can’t.
Although it’s in its early stages, such advocacy is desperately needed as states struggle to ensure residents with common legal problems aren’t left behind, lawyers said.
The cost of hiring lawyers “has increased since the 1970s, and many individual litigants have been forced to forego using professional legal services and either represent themselves or ignore their legal problems,” a task force of the state Supreme Court wrote in a report on legal services in Arizona in 2019.
Utah and Arizona launched programs in recent years that allow people who have earned legal technician's licenses to dispense advice in family law cases, while Minnesota is in a trial run. Oregon plans to start an initiative next summer, and Colorado is considering the idea.
Typically, candidates must tally a certain number of hours of legal training and document preparation before they can become licensed providers, an occupation whose name varies from state to state.
In Colorado, the state Supreme Court is considering launching a program that would allow people with some background in the law to represent people in family court, where low-income or indigent litigants aren’t provided lawyers as defendants are in criminal court.
“It could cost tens of thousands of dollars to go through a divorce or a custody case,” said Maha Kamal, a family law attorney and co-chair of a state committee that proposed the plan. "Most attorneys aren’t offering enough services at a cost that is affordable.”
Sometimes referred to as the nurse practitioners of the law industry, legal service providers offer a less expensive way to file documents and mediate disputes in civil court than hiring a lawyer.
“The average person just can’t afford to pay $300 to $600 an hour for an attorney,” said AJ Torres, the administrator of the licensed paralegal practitioners program for the Utah State Bar. "It shouldn’t be a financial barrier for people to get good representation."
Applicants must usually complete at least 1,500 hours of paralegal-related work, take courses in ethics and family law and pass an exam before they earn certification as licensed legal technicians.
Some states require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a law-related field unless an applicant already has a juris doctorate. Costs to participate in the programs can run from $1,000 to $15,000, but some law firms foot the bill for paralegals who work for them.
With more applicants in the pipeline, Utah has 23 licensed legal providers, Arizona has 20, and Minnesota has 18. Some states allow the providers to appear in family court to help settle divorce or child custody cases.
Some beneficiaries of the programs said they couldn’t have gotten through their legal troubles without the help of affordable providers.
Jasmine Jones, 49, , of Spokane, Washington, said her husband filed for divorce on Valentine’s Day this year, just two months short of their 20th wedding anniversary.
With little money to spend on an attorney, Jones said, she wasn’t sure where to turn. She eventually made contact with a limited license legal technician who guided her through the divorce court proceedings, which were finalized this month.
“I don’t know what I would have done. I didn’t have any savings. There was $20 in my bank account,” said Jones, who is paying off her roughly $2,500 bill in $500 installments.
As such programs gain in popularity around the country, Washington has decided to shutter its initiative after it became the first state to introduce the legal service in 2012. The state Supreme Court decided in 2020 to disband it, citing costs and a lack of public interest.
“There is not currently any proposal before the Court to reconsider that decision," the communications staff said in a statement. "The justices are interested in what other states are doing and will review any proposals that are sent to them.”
A paper by Stanford Law School last year called Washington's program a success and questioned the move. "The Supreme Court’s reasons for sunsetting — cost and lack of interest — ring hollow," it said.
The three-year program, which costs students about $15,000, will end next summer after the current pool of aspirants completes training. The more than 70 licensed legal providers in the state will be allowed to continue offering their services.
Charles Drake, 34, a cybersecurity analyst who is between jobs, said it would have been difficult to win joint custody of his two daughters without Jeanne Barrans, a licensed legal technician. His ex-wife filed for full custody last year after they separated in 2016.
“I was in a crisis situation, so I figured I had to hire an expensive attorney,” said Drake, of Bellingham, Washington.
He took out a $23,000 personal loan that was spent in four months on a lawyer who represented him in family court.
“It was a big waste of time,” said Drake, who grew tired of court delays and often disagreed with his lawyer’s decisions before he fired him.
Soon he found Barrans, a limited license legal technician specializing in divorce and custody battles. Drake said he paid $2,000 for three months of legal services that ended in the joint custody decision.
Amber Alleman, who spent more than 20 years as a family law paralegal before she became one of the first licensed paralegal practitioners in Utah, said several potential law firm clients walked away because they couldn’t afford basic legal services.
Some lawyers charge $400 for an hourlong consultation, she said, while she charges $100 for the same service.
“They just wanted an hour to know what their rights were,” she said of her clients. “They just needed help.”
With few low-cost options, about 70% of family court litigants in Utah represent themselves, Torres said.
Although many of the programs are associated with state bars, lawyers and legal providers have been known to clash, with some attorneys claiming they're competing for the same clients. Torres said the pushback smacks of elitism.
“If you look at it from a realistic standpoint, these paralegals aren’t taking clients from attorneys," he said. "They are giving another option to people who would otherwise represent themselves.”