Most people know that our country has an “access to justice” problem. That is, there are many people that need a lawyer but are unable to find one. Many who could benefit from legal assistance don’t realize the law could protect them, or they don’t know where to find a lawyer, or they don’t know who to trust, or they don’t have the money to pay for it, or all of the above.
A lot of ink has spilled debating possible solutions to this problem. One innovation in this space is being used in Minnesota and I wonder if anyone knows about it?
In recent years, an increasing number of states have experimented with paraprofessional lawyers. In those jurisdictions, they identify a very narrow and limited set of legal issues that non-lawyers could help with and train those non-lawyers to carry out that service. These newly trained paraprofessionals move forward with some strict limitations but they can offer advice and guidance at a cheaper price.
An interesting ingredient in the access to justice jambalaya is how often it seems that lawyers are the only ones allowed to mix the pot. That is, only lawyers can decide who can practice law. This rule has proven to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, lawyers understand the system best, so they know if, when, and how to protect people from charlatans who would give bad legal advice. On the other hand, we can’t find enough lawyers. And there are certain parts of legal work that are actually pretty simple, so a person should not need four years of college, three years of law school, and then to pass a bar exam before helping out other people with a simple task.
I don’t mean to enter the debate here on whether a paraprofessional program is a good idea. It’s a pretty spicy one that I’m happy to muck around in, but this isn’t the time. I just want to give you a flavor for what’s at stake. Frankly, I want non-lawyers to be involved in this debate.
Within the past year, the Minnesota Supreme Court approved a Paraprofessional Pilot Program where these paraprofessionals or paralegals can complete certain training in order to advise on certain housing or family law issues. These paraprofessionals operate under a lawyer’s supervision. I don’t practice law, but I attended law school and I stay engaged in these types of issues. I recognize there’s a level of legal minutiae that I can enjoy, but everyone else shouldn’t have to in order to ensure justice for all. This is part of the reasoning behind lawyers creating a legal system that only they can tinker with. It can free you up to do other things that you enjoy.
However, legal systems also have the difficulty wrapped up in them that a lack of knowledge and accessibility creates grave injustices. I feel like the establishment and growth of this paraprofessional movement is something that more non-lawyers might want to keep an eye on – to weigh in on if and how accessibility is increasing.
It is important to note that other states have started paraprofessional programs, and some of those states have ended those programs because they found they were too expensive and brought only limited benefit. Lawyers will be watching closely and analyzing how effective this program is in Minnesota. Perhaps all of you non-lawyer readers out there should keep an eye on it as well.
Eddie Glenn lives and works at the intersection of law, technology, and strives to maintain humanity in both. He resides in southwest Minneapolis.