Lawyers who don’t follow legislation? Colorado introduces a brand new authorized license for divorce and youngster custody circumstances. – Greeley Tribune
Colorado may soon see a new legal profession.
The Colorado Supreme Court is considering creating a new statutory license that would allow non-lawyers to practice some limited areas of family law.
The controversial proposal would create a new “licensed legal paraprofessional” position: Licensed Experts may represent clients in some divorce and custody cases. The paraprofessionals could draft and file court documents, represent clients in mediations, escort clients to court, and answer factual questions from a judge, although they could not interview witnesses, represent them in court, or present arguments.
Proponents say the program will give litigants a more affordable option than traditional representation by a lawyer and will reduce the number of people in the family court system who appear without any representation – currently about 73% of litigants in domestic relations matters represent themselves, according to a 197-page proposal for a nationally licensed legal paraprofessional, or LLP, program.
“The main driver here is access to justice,” said David Stark, chairman of the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Legal Practice. “We are trying to fill the justice gap that we have in the United States, where a large portion of the population does not qualify for legal aid but still cannot afford attorneys at regular rates.”
Opponents say the effort is misguided, and inexperienced or unsupervised auxiliaries could make mistakes or give bad advice that could create more problems for litigants in the long run.
“We (would) have people giving legal advice who then couldn’t defend that legal advice in court,” said attorney Jessica Peck. “It prepares people for failure.”
The Colorado Supreme Court is asking for public comment on the current proposal by mid-September. Under the latest proposal, an individual would need to meet certain education and experience requirements and pass a licensing exam to become a licensed legal paraprofessional. Paraprofessionals would have to complete annual training and could be disciplined and mourned like lawyers; they would also be subject to rules of professional ethics.
The licensed legal paraprofessionals could operate independently of lawyers and could maintain their own law offices. They could only represent parties in dissolutions where the net marital estate was less than $200,000 and in custody matters only if their client’s income was below a limit to be determined.
The proposed rules are designed to ensure LLPs don’t take on complex cases, said attorney Maha Kamal, who co-chaired a subcommittee focused on the program proposal. LLPs would have to refuse representation and refer potential clients to lawyers in cases outside their jurisdiction.
“They really should focus on simple domestic issues, cases that involve an amicable divorce where two parties just need help getting through and filing a separation agreement,” Kamal said. “And the same goes for custody … instances where the parents agree on a parenting plan and they just need help getting through it or someone to walk them through the arbitration process that’s required in family court.”
“There is a sense of elitism”
Attorney Elizabeth Bonanno, president of the Interdisciplinary Committee at Metro Denver, a nonprofit organization that focuses on family law issues, said the organization has not yet taken a formal position on the proposal.
Personally, she sees a clear need for the program as so many people cannot afford lawyers, but also sees potential challenges in terms of the minimum practical experience requirements and lack of oversight proposed for paraprofessionals – in addition to compliance of educational requirements candidates would need 1,500 hours of experience in a legal environment in the three years prior to their application, of which 500 hours in a family law environment.
“You assume that most people work in a law firm context, but (legal oversight) is not required. So that’s my concern, you’ll get out of this program and hang up your own clapboard not necessarily knowing what you don’t know. That’s what happens to every brand new lawyer when they graduate from law school,” she said, noting that 500 hours is about three months of full-time experience.
“The concern is making sure the support is good and the outcomes are well thought out,” she said. “Because otherwise the problem will occur in the backend when you try to undo things that were done wrong. Then it becomes more difficult for people, more expensive and sometimes damage has occurred that can no longer be repaired.”
According to the report, only a handful of other states, including Washington, Utah and Arizona, have such paraprofessional programs. Minnesota has a pilot program underway. The young programs in these states are small: Utah has only 23 licensed paralegals two years into its program, and six more candidates are scheduled to sit the exam this month; Washington has approximately 66 licensed legal technicians in its 6-year program.
Paralegals in Colorado are not state licensed, but can be certified by various trade organizations, according to the American Bar Association.
In Utah, licensed paralegals, or LPPs, can accept any client regardless of the client’s income, program administrator AJ Torres said. The state’s program is similar to the Colorado proposal, although in Utah paraprofessionals handle not only family law cases, but also debt collections and landlord-tenant disputes, among other things.
Torres said the program faced significant backlash from lawyers and legal groups when it proposed it.
“There’s a sense of elitism as a lawyer and the way they view paralegals and also a sense of market protection,” he said. “But overall, it comes down to serving the community. Access to justice is more important than protecting the market.”
Stark argues that licensed paraprofessionals in Colorado would not take business from attorneys because the average LLP client could not afford an attorney.
“More resolution oriented”
Amber Alleman, one of the first four people in Utah to become a registered paralegal when the program went live in 2019, previously worked as a paralegal for an attorney for years. She recalls that prospective clients would often call to get basic legal advice from the attorney, but would then object to her hourly rate.
“It was $400 an hour, and you could almost hear people on the phone fainting,” Alleman said. “They couldn’t imagine paying $400 an hour just to know what their rights are.”
Alleman charges $100 an hour, with a typical advance of $1,000 for simple divorces or $2,000 for a larger custody case. She said Utah attorneys are “mad” about the new program, and that some are disrespectful of newly licensed paraprofessionals.
Attitudes have improved over time, and as more paraprofessionals have entered the field, she said, but attorneys can still turn her off a case over minor disagreements, taking the case out of their limited jurisdiction and forcing their clients to hire lawyers.
“If they don’t agree with what you’re doing, they’re going to say, ‘I’m going to file a motion,’ so[my client]has to get a lawyer, because then it goes to court,” she said. “They threaten LPPs with that.”
Proceedings must remain fairly amicable for her to remain on the case, she said, adding that opposing parties in their cases are usually represented by lawyers or are pro se. She has handled only one case in the last two years where both parties were represented by LPPs.
No complaints have been filed against LPPs in the Utah disciplinary process since 2019, Torres said. About 60% work in law firms and another 40% run their own practice, he said.
Most of Alleman’s work involves uncontested divorce cases, where the parties make their own agreement and she prepares the paperwork and works on behalf of a client, she said. Although Utah allows paraprofessionals to sit in court with clients, it doesn’t, she said.
“I just don’t want this,” she said. “My practice is more collaborative and solution-focused. Fight and go to court – there are many lawyers who do that.”