By Claire Newfeld.
A Phoenix couple is considering divorce and wants to ensure the best outcome for their children. A criminal defendant in Tucson has been charged with a low-level misdemeanor, and paying the fine if convicted would burden them financially. A tenant in Flagstaff has been calling their former landlord trying to get their security deposit back, but to no avail. These people have almost certainly heard the same advice over and over again: “Get a lawyer.” Their likely response? “Can’t afford it.” Luckily, all of these people could potentially take advantage of a new opportunity in Arizona that provides some clients more affordable representation.
Arizona is one of a few states that is leading the charge to address access to justice issues by allowing legal paraprofessionals to represent clients in specific types of cases. The Arizona Supreme Court approved the program in February 2021, and in late November, it granted licenses to the first ten paraprofessionals in the state. The inaugural class of paraprofessionals opens up the legal field to nonlawyers who can fill a desperate need for legal representation in Arizona communities.
A Legal Desert
In 2019, the Arizona Supreme Court Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services recommended that the Supreme Court develop a “tier of nonlawyer legal service providers” to address the growing “justice gap.” Over 100 million Americans are dealing with civil justice issues, many of which have basic human needs at stake, such as eviction proceedings (shelter), Medicare claims (health), and restraining orders (safety). While civil justice issues span across all socio-economic classes, over 80% of civil litigants are in poverty and are unrepresented. A major contributor to the justice gap is the cost of legal services, as well as the dearth of lawyers in many areas. In Arizona, there is a statewide average of 2.2 lawyers per 1,000 residents, with the vast majority located in Maricopa and Pima counties. For residents of rural counties like Greenlee or Cochise County, there may be no accessible lawyer in the area.
Arizona has been working to address access to justice issues for many years. Since 2003, the Supreme Court has certified Legal Document Preparers who assist in document preparation and may provide general legal information, but not legal advice. The Arizona Commission on Access to Justice, established in 2014, encourages lawyers to provide pro bono services or financial support for legal aid organizations, assists self-represented litigants, and makes recommendations on court rules and processes to facilitate access and efficiency in family court and eviction matters. The legal paraprofessional program is Arizona’s most recent effort in addressing access issues.
Who are Legal Paraprofessionals?
Legal Paraprofessionals (LPs) are able to practice in the areas of family law, limited jurisdiction civil litigation, limited jurisdiction criminal cases where jail time will not be imposed, and state administrative law—all practice fields in high demand among Arizonans. LPs are required to follow a modified version of the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct and participate in Continuing Legal Education in their practice area.
All applicants for licensure must pass at least two exams: one general exam, and one substantive law exam for each area of law the LP intends to practice. The applicant must meet either certain education requirements, such as a Master of Legal Studies from an accredited law school (with a certain number of credits in the areas of law in which the applicant seeks licensure), or have “completed 7 years of full-time substantive law-related experience within the 10 years preceding the application.”
The ten newly licensed LPs all qualified by experience. Amber Labadie, one of the ten, is a paralegal with a forty-year career. She hopes to use her new license to help everyday people with matters that might not be cost-effective for an attorney, but are too complex to handle without a professional: “A lot of times they (clients) are quoted $5,000, $10,000 retainers. Because I’m not an attorney, I can do that at a lower cost.” As of December 2021, twenty-one people have passed the required exams, and professionals expect that the number of LPs will greatly increase soon, especially due to the development of LP academic programs at Arizona colleges and law schools.
The Future of LPs in Arizona
In December 2021, the University of Arizona (UA) received approval to launch a pathways program that allows students pursuing either a Masters of Legal Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Law, or an accelerated BA/MA in law to simultaneously receive LP licensure. The program is the first of its kind in the nation, and program leaders hope it will help Arizona avoid the pitfalls of similar programs in other states. For example, Washington implemented a Limited License Legal Technician program in 2015, but due to costs of maintaining the program and low interest, the Washington Supreme Court voted in 2020 to sunset it. The UA program provides a pipeline to licensure that hopefully will circumvent the pitfalls of the Washington program.
Some professionals have expressed skepticism about the success of the LP program. Monica Lindstrom, legal expert for KTAR News, stated that admitting nonlawyers to practice may “cheapen” the legal profession, risk providing needy clients with insufficient representation, and muddy the waters of the ethics rules. In response, Vice Chief Justice Ann Timmer of the Arizona Supreme Court stated that the testing process would weed out unqualified individuals. She also maintained that the ethics rules are clear and violators will be disciplined the same as attorneys. She compared LPs to nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants, who provide much-needed care to patients in an overwhelmed medical field.
With the inaugural class of LPs newly licensed and a new pipeline program at the UA, the future of the LP program in Arizona seems bright. Given the staggering access to justice issues the nation faces, Arizona’s new effort to address the legal needs of its low- and middle-income population is admirable. The Arizona Supreme Court Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services should continue to monitor the program closely to ensure that it meets its goals of closing the “justice gap.”