For about five months, a handful of Minnesota's legal paraprofessionals have moved quietly into courtrooms to answer a potent question: Can they use their skills, under the supervision of a licensed state attorney, to address glaring gaps in legal representation? Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen is bullish on the idea. He's liaison to the implementation committee for the two-year Legal Paraprofessional Pilot Project, which is modeled after other successful projects across the country; all are intended to increase access to civil legal representation, primarily in the areas of housing and family disputes. Thissen shares more about the pilot, how attorneys' concerns are being addressed, and the positive dividends possible down the road for clients and the courts.
Q: Let's start with the problem or problems you're hoping the pilot will address.
A: The fundamental problem is that too many people in Minnesota have real legal needs and they can't afford a lawyer. There is lots of good work going on, such as Legal Aid, which is doing tremendous work despite being continuously underfunded. We also have pro bono lawyers, but we can't pro bono ourselves out of this problem. A good visual is to imagine filling up U.S. Bank Stadium with people and then offering them 20 lawyers total to attend to everyone's pressing legal issues. These are civil cases that address whether people are going to have a roof over their head, whether they can keep financial problems from turning into financial ruin. These are issues that impact people's daily lives in the most fundamental ways.
Q: What do you hope to learn from the pilot?
A: The pilot, which launched last March but really got going about five months ago, will test and assess whether allowing legal paraprofessionals to provide additional services will increase access to competent, quality representation for low- and modest-income Minnesota litigants and reduce court congestion.
Q: What sorts of aid can they offer?
A: Under the pilot, they are able to provide advice to and appear in court on behalf of tenants in eviction cases, and on behalf of clients in family law cases, including hearings related to child-support modifications, parenting-time disputes and paternity matters.
Q: And let's note right away that they are not working on their own.
A: Every paralegal operates under the supervision of a lawyer to make sure they are not getting into areas beyond their scope.
Q: Yet I'm guessing you've still had to offer reassurances to lawyers that their roles are not being usurped?
A: A slippery slope is their biggest concern … and making sure that the legal services people get are competent.
Q: Your response?
A: First of all, it's a pilot. We're testing. We're going to take a look and if it doesn't increase access or there are quality problems, we'll address that. Secondly, we're focusing on areas where lawyers aren't typically there, such as in housing. With evictions, for example, less than 5% of tenants have a lawyer. On the other side, most mom-and-pop landlords can't afford a lawyer, either.
Q; And having legal representation can help everybody.
A: Hennepin County has been ahead of the curve in getting people representation in housing issues. The county learned that when a tenant was represented, outcomes were remarkably better. There were fewer evictions and, when a tenant was evicted, he or she had a lot more time to make a move.
Q: How many paraprofessionals are participating?
A: Over a dozen have been certified. We haven't heard much back from judges they have appeared in front of, but in terms of the paraprofessionals and lawyers, it seems to be working well. The kinks are getting worked out.
Q: Are other states launching similar pilots?
A: The best around this is Utah, which launched its own Licensed Paralegal Practitioner Program permitting non-lawyer licensees to undertake limited legal tasks. There are states moving ahead on such programs, including in New York, California, Arizona and other countries, including England.
Q: Was it legally necessary to develop this pilot at the state Supreme Court level?
A: The most basic reason [to launch it there] is that we have laws and rules that allow only lawyers to do certain things. The Supreme Court had to put a rule in place to say it's OK for non-lawyers to appear in court and provide legal advice in these limited areas. And the court can provide real leadership in motivating lawyers. Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea has been a powerful force behind the pilot.
Q: This reminds me of the debate from several years back about whether dental therapists could take over some of the roles traditionally performed by dentists. That's now a thriving model. Do you see other parallels in other professions?
A: Another would be nurse practitioners who, over the last 25 years, are taking more of the roles that doctors have always played, increasing access. The nice thing about limiting this pilot to housing and family law is that we can test it out to see if law firms can use their paralegals as extenders of services. It may expand their business.
Q: To be part of the pilot, what qualifications must the legal paraprofessionals have?
A: Either a paralegal degree or law degree or five years of experience as a paraprofessional, and they must also meet continuing education qualifications. Minnesota paralegals are highly trained and experienced. Some have graduated from law school but haven't yet taken the bar exam. They dive into the details. Even today, when cases are prepared by lawyers, the paralegal often is pulling all the facts together and understands what is needed under the law to get things done. They're talking to clients, relating to people on a personal level. I am fully confident that the folks we've certified to do this are going to provide great services to people. If paralegals or lawyers are interest in participating, or if a person in need of legal services is interested in learning more, we have a website with a lot of information. Go to mncourts.gov.