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'Erased in an afternoon': WA Supreme Court abruptly ends innovative legal tech program

Temple of Justice in Olympia
Parker Miles Blohm
Temple of Justice in Olympia

An innovative program that allows non-lawyers to be licensed to give limited legal advice has been touted as a national model. As reported by KNKX in 2016, it was created as a way to provide inexpensive legal help for people without a lot of money.

But now, with no official warning, the Washington Supreme Court has voted to kill the LLLT program, as it’s known.

Jen Petersen is a limited license legal technician in Bellingham, and sits on the LLLT board. She said she was shocked by the letter the board received from the Washington State Supreme Court on June 5.

“We got a letter from the court after 5 o’clock on a Friday,” Petersen said.

In three short paragraphs, the court said it was going to sunset the limited license legal technician program because of cost and its failure to live up to its promise. The court wrote that although the program was “an innovative attempt to increase access to legal services,” the program “is not an effective way to meet these needs.” 

But Petersen, who  became an LLLT in 2015, said she and the 40 to 45 practicing legal techs have provided legal help to thousands of people who would otherwise be on their own navigating an often confusing court system.

“My clients would not have legal help without my services. They can’t afford an attorney,” Petersen said.

The LLLTs, who operate independent of attorneys although some work in law offices, have been limited to family law issues, but have pushed to expand to other areas. Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, who voted to get rid of the license, told KNKX that although she has nothing against the people who are currently doing the LLLT work, she never thought it was a good idea to have “half lawyers addressing complex legal issues.

“I really think a full, competent attorney is what everybody ought to have,” she said. And she said the court should work on making that possible.

But the Supreme Court vote to eliminate the LLLT license wasn’t unanimous. It was 7-2. In a highly critical dissenting letter, Justice Barbara Madsen challenged the “opaque process” to eliminate an independent legal license without “a single meeting, without question or comment from LLLT license holders, legal practitioners, or the public at large.”

“What took over a decade of toil to create, this court erased in an afternoon,” she wrote.  She added that the creation of the LLLT was meant to be just the beginning of improving access to justice and pointed out that other states are considering adopting similar programs.

Letters and emails opposed to phasing out the LLLT program have been coming into the court. The LLLT board has written a letter asking the court to reconsider its decision.

Meanwhile, Petersen will continue to do her work. As a practicing LLLT she’ll be grandfathered in. But she is concerned for the future of students trying to complete the program, and thinks about potential clients who will go into court without someone to guide them.

She said the American Bar Association recently passed a resolution encouraging all states to come up with an alternative legal services program like Washington’s.

“I just think how embarrassing, all these other states are modeling on this thing we’ve done and we’re going to shut it down,” she said.

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.