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 certain limited areas of family law.
The controversial proposal would create a new position of “licensed legal paraprofessionals”: licensed experts authorized to represent clients in certain divorce and child custody cases. Paraprofessionals could draft and file court documents, represent clients in mediation, accompany clients to court, and answer factual questions from a judge, although they cannot interview witnesses, plead or present arguments in court .
Proponents say the program will provide litigants with a more affordable option than traditional legal representation and reduce the number of people in the family law court system who appear without any representation – currently, around 73% of litigants in Domestic relations cases represent themselves, according to a 197-page proposal for a statewide accredited legal paraprofessional program, or LLP.
“The main driver here is access to justice,” said David Stark, chair of the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Practice of Law. “We are trying to bridge the legal gap that we have in the United States, where a large portion of the population does not qualify for legal aid but nevertheless cannot afford lawyers at regular rates. “
Opponents say the effort is misguided and that inexperienced or unsupervised paraprofessionals could make mistakes or offer bad advice that could create more problems for litigants in the long run.
“We (would) have people giving legal advice who couldn’t go and defend that legal advice in court,” attorney Jessica Peck said. “It sets people up for failure.”
The Colorado Supreme Court is seeking public comment on the current proposal through mid-September. Under the latest proposal, a person would have to meet specific education and experience requirements and pass a licensing exam to become a licensed legal paraprofessional. Paraprofessionals would be required to undergo annual continuing education and could be disciplined and mourned like lawyers; they would also be subject to professional ethical rules.
Licensed legal paraprofessionals would be allowed to operate independently of lawyers and could maintain their own law firms. They could represent parties to the dissolution of a marriage only in cases where net marital assets were 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 that LLPs do not take on complex cases, said attorney Maha Kamal, who co-chaired a subcommittee focused on the program proposal. LLPs would be required to refuse representation and refer potential clients to attorneys in cases beyond their reach.
“They’re really meant to focus on simple domestic matters, cases involving an amicable divorce, where two parties just need help with a separation agreement, filing,” Kamal said. “And the same thing on the custody side…cases where the parents agree on a parenting plan and they just need help to get through it, or someone to guide them through it. mediation process, which is required in family law court.”
“There is a feeling of elitism”
Attorney Elizabeth Bonanno, chair of the Interdisciplinary Committee of Metro Denver, a nonprofit focused on family law issues, said the organization has not yet taken an official position on the proposal.
Personally, she sees a clear need for the program with so many people unable to afford lawyers, but also sees potential challenges around the minimum real-world experience requirements and lack of supervision offered for paraprofessionals – in addition To meet the educational requirements, applicants would need 1,500 hours of experience in a legal setting in the three years preceding their application, including 500 hours in family law.
“They assume that most people will work in a law firm, but (supervision of a lawyer) is not necessary. So that’s my concern, that you get out of this program and put your own shingle on, but you don’t necessarily know what you don’t know. It happens to every new lawyer when you get out of law school,” she said, noting that 500 hours is about three months of full-time experience.
“The concern is to make sure the attendance is good and the results are well thought out,” she said. “Because otherwise the problem that happens is at the back, when you’re trying to undo things that were done wrong. That’s when it gets harder for people, expensive and sometimes damage has been caused that cannot 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 fledgling programs in these states are small: Utah has only 23 paralegal practitioners licensed for two years in its program and six more candidates are due to take the exam this month; Washington has approximately 66 licensed paralegals in its 6-year program.
Colorado paralegals are not licensed by the state, but can be certified by various professional organizations, according to the American Bar Association.
In Utah, licensed paralegals, or LPPs, can take on any client, regardless of income, said program administrator AJ Torres. The state program is similar to the Colorado proposal, although in Utah, paraprofessionals handle not only family law matters, but also debt collection and landlord-tenant disputes, among other things. differences.
Torres said the program faced significant pushback from lawyers and legal associations when it was first proposed.
“There’s a sense of elitism as a lawyer and the way they view paralegals, as well as a sense of market protection,” he said. “But overall, it’s about serving the general public. Access to justice is more important than market protection.
Stark argues that licensed paraprofessionals in Colorado would not take business from attorneys because the average LLP client would not be able to afford an attorney.
“More resolution oriented”
Amber Alleman, one of the first four people from Utah to become a licensed paralegal when the program went live in 2019, has already spent years working as a paralegal for an attorney. She recalls potential clients often calling to seek basic legal advice from the attorney, but then balking at her hourly rate.
“It was $400 an hour, and you could almost hear people passing out on the phone,” Alleman said. “They couldn’t imagine paying $400 an hour just to find out what their rights are.”
Alleman charges $100 an hour, with a typical retainer of $1,000 for simple divorces or $2,000 for a larger custody case. She said Utah attorneys were “crazy” about the new program and some were disrespectful to newly licensed paraprofessionals.
Attitudes have improved over time and as more paraprofessionals have entered the field, she said, but lawyers can still force her to drop a case even over minor disagreements by moving the case outside its limited scope and forcing its clients to hire lawyers.
“If they don’t agree with what you’re doing, they’ll say, ‘I’m going to file a motion,’ so (my client) has to get a lawyer, because then it’s going to court,” he said. she declared. said. “That’s what they’re threatening the LPPs with.”
The proceedings must remain friendly enough to keep her on the case, she said, adding that opposing parties in her cases are usually represented by lawyers or are pro se. She has handled only one case in the past two years in which both parties were represented by LPPs.
Since 2019, no complaints have been filed against the LPPs through Utah’s disciplinary process, Torres said. About 60% work in law firms and 40% run their own practice, he said.
Most of Alleman’s work is in uncontested divorce cases in which the parties reach their own agreement and she prepares the paperwork, working on behalf of a client, she said. Although Utah allows paraprofessionals to sit with clients in court, it does not, she said.
“I just don’t want to do this,” she said. “My practice is more collaborative and more resolution-oriented. Fight and go to court – there are plenty of lawyers who will.