by Ridhi Shetty
After the State of Washington took several years to study its justice gap with little concrete action to bridge this gap, the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) Board of Governors continues to drag out the process ordered by the Washington Supreme Court in January 2018 to bring limited license legal technicians (LLLTs), limited practice officers (LPOs), and public members onto the Board.
In a March 2018 interview, WSBA Executive Director Paula Littlewood explained that the process began when the Court created a Practice of Law Board to look at unauthorized practice of law and to assess civil needs. After eight years of work, the Practice of Law Board recommended to the Court that the LLLT license be created to help the eighty to eighty-five percent of low- and moderate-income unrepresented people in the state. Once the Court adopted the Practice of Law Board’s recommendation as Admission to Practice Rule 28 in 2012, it took two more years to result in the first class of individuals applying for licensure. This additional delay resulted from the Court establishing a separate LLLT Board to determine how the license would work for a new profession with its own training curriculum and separate bar exam.
Only twenty-seven LLLTs are currently licensed, and those pursuing licensure must get their practice area education at the University of Washington Law School after completing their core education at the community college level. Today in the State of Washington, LLLTs are licensed to assist and advise divorce, child custody, and other family law matters, while LPOs are licensed to select, prepare, and complete approved documents for loan closings, credit extensions, sale, and other property transfer. After such a lengthy time frame from the establishment of the Practice Law Board to the current status of these practitioners, the WSBA Board continues to unnecessarily procrastinate this year in taking definitive steps.
Despite the Court’s January order to fill three new seats with LLLTs, LPOs, and public members, the WSBA Board has repeatedly deferred action on the order every month, citing a variety of reasons. These reasons include proposals to require these practitioners to run for the seats instead of being directly brought on, as well as a lack of the transparency required in the Board’s process. Though some Board governors questioned whether any Board action taken without filling the LLLTs/LPOs seats is valid—as the WSBA Board would not be complete without implementing the order in effect—WSBA President William Pickett stated in March that no motions would be heard regarding implementation until the Board had achieved “complete transparency” by giving the public a say in the Board’s process. With no action taken through March to align with the Court’s order, the implementation process was thus postponed again.
Complete transparency was presumably achieved by dedicating the Board’s April meeting to public comment from lawyers, former Board governors, and LLLTs, before the Board could take any further steps. Several LLLTs confirmed their significant training, their usefulness in advising less experienced lawyers, and their dedication to their communities. Former Board President Anthony Gipe asserted that implementation should not be delayed over speculative harm to attorneys if such harm is not proved (April 2018 Special Meeting, Part 1, 6:39), and former Board Governor Jill Karmy stated that implementation serves the WSBA’s goal of increasing representation for marginalized people (April 2018 Special Meeting, Part 1, 17:18). (Time stamps refer to video recordings of the mentioned meetings, which can be viewed here.)
Several lawyers offered comments exhibiting a protectionist belief that the status of lawyers must be prioritized over the justice gap, giving lawyers deference based on their title instead of on how efficiently they serve their community. Attorney Nancy Hawkins criticized any suggestions that LLLTs and LPOS are more concerned with public welfare than lawyers are (April 2018 Special Meeting, Part 1, 19:42), and attorney Rhea Rolfe stated that no burden of proof of harm needed to be met to keep LLLTs and LPOs from having a vote on the Board (April 2018 Special Meeting, Part 1, 31:56).
Instead of using public comments to pass a motion on implementation, this meeting concluded with a vote approving a work group to focus specifically on the implementation process, which essentially goes back to the drawing board for an issue that the Washington Supreme Court has already resolved with its order. After years of the Practice Law Board’s and later the LLLT Board’s efforts, approving another work group only maintains the status quo. It demonstrates the WSBA Board’s protectionist approach in favor of the comments of lawyers who, instead of focusing on the persisting justice gap in Washington, worry that they are more entitled to a vote on the Board than LLLTs and LPOs who fill a need that lawyers currently do not.
In May, President Pickett ruled that the Board should proceed to review the bylaw amendments without first filling bringing LLLTS, LPOs, and public members onto the Board. This repeated postponement of the implementation process only serves lawyers who worry that LLLTs and LPOs diminish the status of or demand for lawyers, as well as those who believe that LLLTs and LPOs should pay the same dues and be elected the same way as lawyer members. Anthony Gipe reported that several members of the Board were elected without a majority of votes from bar members, with some Board members being elected with as low as 7 percent of the vote. (April 2018 Special Meeting, Part 2, 31:31). This weakens the argument that the Board must wait for LLLTs and LPOs to be voted into office and instead further emphasizes that the Board’s tendency toward delay is symptomatic of protectionism within the Board. Additionally, the Board voted in July to set member fees for LLLTS and LPOs to be the same for lawyer members, claiming that they have access to the same benefits and services. Thus, the WSBA would profit from LLLTs and LPOs without giving them equal representation on the Board.
Arguments to delay or cancel implementation do not serve the WSBA’s goal to improve access to justice for its underrepresented communities. In the Board’s May meeting, WSBA member Doug Shepherd stated that the court’s order should not be treated as advisory in nature, pointing out that with eighty percent of the public lacking access to justice, the WSBA cannot claim that it provides access to justice to everyone in the state (May 2018 Special Meeting, Interview and Selection of 2018-2019 WSBA President Elect, 43:08). By choosing to repeat the same discussions in every meeting about the value of LLLTs, LPOs, and public members on the Board, the WSBA Board creates the very obstacles it should be trying to overcome to improve access to justice in the State of Washington
You can watch the WSBA Board of Governors’ 2018 meetings here.
Ridhi Shetty is a legal intern at Responsive Law.
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