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Paraprofessionals: What New Roles Can Nonlawyers Fill at Law Firms?

The concept of the “legal paraprofessionals,” also known as LPs, is nothing new. Unlike a paralegal, typically defined as a person who is trained and educated to perform substantive legal work under the supervision of an attorney, a legal paraprofessional is a broader term that encompasses a wider range of legal support roles. Current regulations generally prohibit either from performing their services without the supervision of a licensed attorney.  Primarily driven by a desire to increase access to the civil legal system, in recent years, a handful of states have started exploring the possibility of licensing LPs to provide legal services traditionally reserved for attorneys. Just as physician assistants (PAs) can provide medical services without the direct supervision of a licensed physician, regulatory reforms in the legal field may ultimately allow LPs to provide their services without the direct supervision of a lawyer. Defining the scope of their role within the legal industry is currently the subject of lively and ongoing debate among policymakers and practitioners. It is too soon to tell how the debate will ultimately resolve across U.S. jurisdictions. However, a loosening of restrictions has the potential to significantly alter hiring practices within the legal industry, as well as generate new opportunities for forward-thinking firms to lower overhead costs and maximize efficiency by passing on work that does not necessarily require the attention of an attorney to paraprofessionals. Eda Rosa, CEO of Eda Rosa LLC which provides paralegal services to law firms, has been hiring “paraprofessionals” for nearly five years. She believes that these rule changes can have great benefits for all involved. “Limited licensing could provide a well-rounded option that benefits both the legal industry and the communities that we serve by providing affordable legal services for all,” Rosa, a Wizehire partner, says. 

Restrictions in the model rules of professional conduct

The primary obstacles to the proposed reforms are found in the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, originally promulgated in 1983 and since adopted by nearly all U.S. jurisdictions to govern the legal profession within their territories.
  •       Model Rule 5.4 – This rule aims to protect the “professional independence” of lawyers by prohibiting them from sharing fees with nonlawyers.
  •       Model Rule 5.5 – This rule prohibits the “unauthorized practice of law” to protect the public against the rendition of legal services by unqualified persons. Simply put, the rule bars nonlawyers from providing legal services without the supervision of an attorney.
Critics of these restrictions argue that they (1) block access to outside capital and equity-based compensation for nonlawyer experts, (2) impose an inefficient business model on law practice over the short term, (3) and deprive legal service providers of the resources and non-legal skill sets necessary to drive innovation in the long term.

ABA Resolution 115 encouraging regulatory innovation

To address these concerns, the ABA adopted Resolution 115 in 2020. The Resolution aims “to help the more than 80% of people below the poverty line and the many middle-income Americans who lack meaningful access to effective civil legal services.” This move represents one more step toward achieving social justice by providing the meaningful access these demographics currently lack. It also represents one more step toward opening a marginalized and largely untapped sector of the legal market. Good intentions aside, however, the Resolution makes no move to loosen the restrictions imposed by Model Rules 5.4 and 5.5. On the one hand, it encourages jurisdictions to “consider regulatory innovations that have the potential to improve the accessibility, affordability, and quality of civil legal services, while also ensuring necessary and appropriate protections that best serve clients and the public . . .” On the other, it makes clear that “nothing in this Resolution should be construed as recommending any changes to any of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including Model Rule 5.4, as they relate to nonlawyer ownership of law firms, the unauthorized practice of law, or any other subject.”

Paraprofessional Case Studies: Utah and Arizona

Notwithstanding the ABA’s reluctance to enact widespread change unilaterally, a handful of states have taken matters into their own hands. Arizona, California, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, and Washington are among those that have already launched or are considering reform programs.  Two of the most prominent programs currently deployed are in Utah and Arizona. [5] The supreme courts in both Utah and Arizona have first moved to abolish the prohibition in Model Rule 5.4 against nonlawyers owning law firms. As explained in a press release by the Arizona Supreme Court, these changes are motivated by a sentiment that “lawyers have an ethical obligation to assure that legal services are available to the public and that if the rules stand in the way of making those services available, the rules should change.” The changes do not stop there. In Utah, Rule 14-802 of the Rules Governing the Utah State Bar creates an exception to the general prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law that allows “Licensed Paralegal Practitioners” (LPPs) to offer services in the following practice areas:
  •       Specific family law matters, such as temporary separation, divorce, parentage, cohabitant abuse, civil stalking, custody and support, or name change;
  •       Forcible entry and detainer; and
  •       Debt collection matters in which the dollar amount at issue does not exceed the statutory limit for small claims cases.
Similarly, in Arizona, Section 7-210 of the Code of Judicial Administration now allows “Legal Paraprofessionals” (LPs) to “provide legal services within the exception to the prohibition of the unauthorized practice.” With a license endorsement from the Board of Nonlawyer Legal Service Providers, LPs in Arizona may provide services in the following practice areas:
  •       Family law
  •       Civil practice
  •       Criminal law
  •       Administrative law
  •       Juvenile law
As these states and others continue to experiment with their pilot programs and assess results, more are likely to develop models of their own. Only time will tell what the outcome will be, but change is on the way.

How will these paraprofessionals change legal hiring?

In recent years, policymakers across the states have shown increasing interest in expanding access to legal services by loosening decades-old restrictions on the practice of law. As articulated by the Utah Supreme Court, the goal of these legal reforms is to “ensure consumers have access to a well-developed, high-quality, innovative, affordable, and competitive market for legal services.” Motivated primarily by an effort to address the ongoing shortage and prohibitively high cost of legal services for the average consumer, these reforms are still largely in an experimental stage in a handful of states. As pioneering jurisdictions work out the kinks, more and more are likely to follow, generating new forms of competition and opportunities for hiring in the legal industry.  Hiring more paraprofessionals could be an important change for your legal business in the near future.  Wizehire has a team of hiring coaches who are experts in helping clients navigate the ever-changing world of hiring. Our coaches are always ready to assist clients with any questions they have regarding hiring. Check out the Wizehire pricing page today to get started.

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