A Promising Path to Increase Access to Justice

(This opinion essay was first published in Bloomberg Law on May 18, 2021.)

Third-year law student Noelle Smith

An encouraging solution to increase access to legal services for people of modest means is to create the equivalent of nurse practitioners in the legal profession, explain Jason Solomon, executive director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, and Noelle Smith, a third-year Stanford Law student. Several states are considering this, they say, and the result will improve the way the legal system functions.

How can we increase access to justice? The problem seems intractable but urgent. Wealthy individuals and big businesses can afford representation; some of our poorest citizens can get help through legal aid. Everyone else is on their own.

There are entire areas of law where people of modest means are largely unserved by lawyers. Imagine going through a divorce, battling for custody, appearing in court—all without help. The same goes for fighting a denial of unemployment or disability benefits, applying for asylum, responding to an eviction notice, or negotiating with a debt collector.

Positive Solution

Executive Director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession Jason Solomon

A promising solution is to create the equivalent of nurse practitioners in the legal profession: trained professionals to handle less complex matters. In medicine, the introduction of nurse practitioners expanded access and lowered cost. We can do the same in law, and many states are considering doing just that.

The model has been successful elsewhere. In Ontario, “independent paralegals” are well-established. Lay advocates in the U.S. handle cases before the Social Security Administration and immigration courts. And research from England and elsewhere shows that specialization and experience (not being a lawyer) predicts success in representation.

In 2012, Washington state launched an innovative program to create “Limited License Legal Technicians” (LLLTs) to help people with family law issues. After completing a specialized family law curriculum and 1,500 hours of supervised training, legal technicians guide average people through the complex family law system at more affordable rates than lawyers. Experienced paralegals could get licensed more quickly.

In a puzzling decision, a divided Washington Supreme Court elected to sunset the program last summer, just as it was demonstrating real success. The 46 licensed legal technicians can continue to practice, but no new legal technicians will be licensed. As it weighs final rule changes to the program, the court has an opportunity to reconsider the decision. And they should.

(Continue reading the opinion essay on Bloomberg Law’s page here.)

Jason Solomon is the executive director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession and a lecturer in law at Stanford Law School. He previously served as the chief legal officer of the education nonprofit Summit Learning, and as a law professor at William and Mary and the University of Georgia.

Noelle Smith is a third-year law student at Stanford Law School, where she is a senior editor on the law review and a research assistant at the Center on the Legal Profession.