Thursday, February 6, 2014
What are "limited license legal technicians" or LLLTs? As defined by the Supreme Court of Washington in an order issued in June of 2012, LLLTs are individuals who achieve certification through a new state program, authorizing them to provide specific legal services within specific substantive areas of law and law-related practice.
Why create the LLLT alternative, especially in a country and during an economy where there are, arguably, more than enough underemployed lawyers? As the Washington Supreme Court carefully details, the current civil legal system "is unaffordable not only to low income people but, as a [2003 state study] documented, moderate income people as well...." For low income people, the "underfunded civil legal system is inadequate" to meet their very real needs. For many who are moderate in income, "existing market rates for legal services are cost-prohibitive." A new means of meeting public need is warranted, says the Court.
Why is a system of licensing LLLTs in the State of Washington potentially very significant to the practice of Elder Law? Washington has identified four areas of unmet civil law needs: Family Law, Immigration, Landlord/Tenant, and... yes, Elder Law.
Very interesting! The first practice area to be certified in Washington will be "Domestic Relations," with the Limited License Legal Technician Board expecting to begin accepting applications for a licensing examination in late summer or early fall of 2014. No indication yet on when "Elder Law" LLLTs might be certified. In the roll-out design, applicants must first satisfy threshold educational standards, including holding at least an associate level degree, plus 45 credit hours at an ABA-approved program (which, for the moment at least, means an ABA approved law school). Details on the certification process are available on the Washington State Bar Association's website, here. The University of Washington's School of Law has announced its "inaugural program" for LLLTs in family law to begin in the winter quarter of 2014.
While I suspect this movement might make existing Elder Law attorneys a bit nervous, my own research points to the very real need for more widely available, trustworthy legal advice. For example, Penn State Dickinson law students, with financial support of the Borchard Foundation's Center on Law and Aging, helped me to conduct focus groups drawn from a wide range of income, race, ethnicity and gender orientation, from locations all across Pennsylvania. In English and in Spanish, in inner cities and rural senior centers, we asked about their views and experiences with accessing legal assistance with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, insurance and other legal questions of concern to older persons. As summarized here, fear of the cost of seeing a lawyer, and the difficulty in finding free or affordable attorneys who were "trustworthy," were concerns clearly raised in each of the focus group sessions. That study pointed to the need for elder law specialists -- but not necessarily to a need for "just" Elder Law attorneys.
Big thanks go to Penn State Dickinson Professor Laurel Terry, our in-house guru on all things cutting edge in the practice of law, for sharing with me the latest materials on Washington's LLLT program.