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Sunset for Washington Access to Justice Program Stuns Students

July 2, 2020, 9:45 AM

Driven by her years-long interest in the law and the desire to help others, former dental hygienist Stacy Davis signed up for a Washington state program in 2018 that would give her some ability to practice law.

Two years later and nearly $30,000 in debt, she won’t be certified as a Limited License Legal Technician because the state’s Supreme Court voted to sunset the program faster than she can complete its qualifying prerequisites, citing the overall costs of sustaining it and a lack of interest.

The high court decision, announced June 5, comes as several other states—including populous California and Florida—are studying access to justice initiatives aimed at lowering financial barriers to quality legal representation by liberalizing the rules governing who can provide it. Washington’s move caught students, instructors and the program’s advocates off guard.

“I have invested extraordinary time, money, and effort and for what?” asked Davis.

The program was supposed to be a “do over” for the 58-year-old Wenatchee, Washington, resident who had to retire because of a permanent partial disability. She said her new career would have allowed her to work part time.

The LLLT “was touted as a degree you could complete in two years if you already had your Associate of Arts degree in any subject,” she said. But she still has two classes to take; complete 3000 hours of substantive work experience; as well as exams to pass before the program sunsets next July.

The program was started in 2012 with the intent to lower family law costs by allowing people to seek help from limited-licensees instead of fully accredited attorneys. But its demanding requirements—including 45 hours of legal studies at an approved school, 15 credits in family law and 3,000 hours of attorney supervised law-related work—may explain why just 42 people held active LLLT certifications when the court voted to wind down the program.

Despite its tough curriculum and limited popularity, there’s now a push to have the court reconsider its decision as proponents fear the shutdown will have a chilling effect on similar experiments elsewhere.

“I’m concerned that other states will not consider a similar professional offering because of the ‘lack of interest in it’ or that it wasn’t a money maker,” said attorney Erin Levine. She founded Hello Divorce, a California company that uses technology to eliminate a lot of the overhead associated with the divorce process.

California, Arizona, and Utah have programs that allow non-lawyers to provide legal assistance to those who can’t otherwise afford a lawyer, and New Mexico is considering one, Levine said. Florida too is looking to expand such access.

Convoluted Requirements

One lesson from Washington is that the demanding requirements “made it very challenging, if not impossible, for most people to become LLLT’s,” said Levine, the California divorce lawyer.

Davis said she’d completed the 45 credit hours but couldn’t take the first of three required exams because she hadn’t yet completed one year of substantive work experience. This was difficult, Davis said, because she had to commute for her studies and was ultimately “sent home” by the attorney for whom she worked when the coronavirus struck Washington.

And those who won’t be able to finish in time are left with debts.

Jaymi Trimble said she’s invested more than $20,000 toward getting her license but still needs to take the family law classes and get the 3,000 practical hours before July 31, 2021, which just isn’t feasible, she said in an email.

In its three-paragraph letter to the state bar on June 5, Washington Chief Justice Debra Stephens said that considering “the overall costs of sustaining the program and the small number of interested individuals,” the LLLT program wasn’t an effective way to increase access to legal services.

The deadline for completing its requirements is July 31, 2021, after which no more technicians will be licensed.

Justice Barbara Madsen responded with an impassioned four-page dissent, calling the LLLT certification an independent legal license and decrying what she said was a lack of public comment or input.

“What took over a decade of toil to create, this court erased in an afternoon,” Madsen said. “the LLLT license did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. Rather, it is the work of thousands upon thousands of hours dedicated to rectifying a simple truth: that access to justice in this country is not equal.”

Arbitrary Decision

Theresa Pouley, head of the paralegal program at Edmonds College in Lynnwood, Washington, said the state Supreme Court’s decision came as a surprise. As recently as April, the LLLT board had been discussing options of expanding into other practice areas, including administrative law and eviction and debt assistance.

Edmonds is one of seven schools approved to teach the LLLT core curriculum. The school’s Paralegal Program Advisory Committee sent a letter to Stephens on June 19 asking the court to reconsider the deadline, which it called “arbitrary.”

The LLLT Board is also asking for a review of the decision, it recently told those working toward their certificates and other stakeholders.

Board Chairman Steve Crossland said he wasn’t giving up on the idea the court will change its mind. “We were just getting rolling,” he said of the program, which has about 270 students in the pipeline.

He admitted that the requirements were “stringent” but the premise of the program is to serve and protect the public, so there had to be adequate training. Nevertheless, the 3,000 hours “overshot the limit,” Crossland admitted, and 1,500 is a more reasonable requirement.

He said he believes the program is salvageable because “the public will demand it.” There’s an “ever-increasing, unmet need” for legal aid, Crossland said, and the decision by the court and state bar’s board of governors, which affects the future for millions, “can’t stand alone without scrutiny or revision.”

The decision came without any request for comments or hearings that might have given the public a chance to weigh in, said Clay Wilson, a faculty member at Seattle University School of Law’s Access to Justice Institute.

Pouley called LLLTs “amazing” and “indispensable.” They speed up the divorce process “tenfold,” she said. And their help during the coronavirus pandemic has been invaluable. The need for protection orders for domestic violence has increased during this time and their help has been “off the charts,” she said.

LLLTs help clients with court documents, guide pro se clients during some hearings, and participate in mediation, arbitration, and settlement conferences, according to the Washington bar’s website.

Levine said she had plans to expand to Washington to work with LLLTs to help clients with their divorces at more affordable prices. Clients could use her company’s technology to handle the “easy” stuff, and have a technician guide them through divorce, she said. She’s now focused on launching elsewhere.

Legal Competition

Jeff Hamilton, an attorney in Seattle who also has a free general legal advice clinic, said that the reasons attorneys gave for being opposed to his clinic are the same given by those against the LLLT program—that both are competition and stealing clients away from them.

“This idea is complete nonsense to anyone who has read the 2003 and 2015 Civil Legal Needs Studies conducted in Washington,” he said. The 2015 study found that more than 70% of low-income households experienced a serious civil legal problem each year but that 76% of those households faced their legal issues alone.

There aren’t enough attorneys to address this access to justice gap, Hamilton said.

Jason Solomon, executive director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School, is also calling on the state’s Supreme Court to reconsider its “unfortunate” decision. “Otherwise, it makes hollow their recent claim to care about systemic racial inequities in the justice system,” he said in an email.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com; Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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