While lots of states endlessly debate what to do about A2J and contemplate their navels, Alaska has actually done something that might just move the needle.
On December 1, the Alaska Supreme Court adopted Bar Rule 43.5. This rule sets up a process for those who have not necessarily graduated from law school to provide certain limited legal services to those Alaskans in need. And they can do so without the worry of being accused of the unauthorized practice of law.
These individuals, who the order unfortunately refers to as “nonlawyers,” must be trained and supervised by the Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC). (As one of the legal professionals who was not a lawyer in my old firm once told me, “I don’t like being referred to as a non-anything”. The Alaska Supreme Court could have used a better term). The ALSC is a nonprofit that provides free civil legal services to low-income Alaskans in need.
The new Rule didn’t get a lot of publicity, but it is a significant step forward. It shows how innovative outside-the-box thinking can improve access to justice for those in need and who might otherwise go without legal help.
By way of background, in 2019, the ALSC created the Community Justice Worker (CJW) Project. This Project was designed to address Alaska’s escalating access to justice issues. As in many states, the Alaska legal services lawyers were struggling to keep up with this escalation. The idea was to allow those who have not necessarily gone to law school to do more short of practicing law.
To make the Project even more effective, ALSC recently sought a mechanism for properly trained and supervised CJWs to provide legal assistance and limited legal advocacy and representation to ALSC clients.
Under the Rule, CJWs would be granted waivers from the unauthorized practice of law rules. These waivers would allow the CJWS to provide limited legal services to ALSC clients on specific civil legal issues. The waivers would be granted only to those completing ALSC required training in ethics and the substantive area in which the CJW would practice. The ASLC will provide all necessary supervision and oversight.
In its request for the new Rule, the ALSC identified several areas of law where nonlawyer advocates could supplement existing ALSC staff and pro bono attorney efforts: addressing public assistance delays and denials, accessing unemployment benefits, debt collection defense, estate planning, domestic violence protective order advocacy, and Indian Child Welfare Act matters.
Under the new Rule, the ALSC will submit applications to the Alaska Board of Governors on behalf of those who wish to provide assistance. Those providing services can be either full or part time employees of the ALSC or even volunteers. (Allowing volunteers to participate will open the door even further to expanded services). The scope of the services to be provided shall be limited to that which the Board approves.
This new approach is a good step forward in bringing access to justice to those who can’t afford it. This kind of approach does not carry the baggage of other more controversial proposals such as changing law firm ownership rules. Those proposals are often viewed with suspicion since they could primarily benefit established entities (like accounting firms)without really advancing access to justice.
But the Alaska Rule only benefits those who can’t otherwise afford legal services—and no one else. And it does it in a practical and realistic way. A lot of things in the civil context that lawyers do could be done just as well by those who are not technically lawyers. And I doubt there are many of us who haven’t learned a thing or two from paralegals and administrative assistants about the practice of law.
Now, in Alaska, these folks are freed up to do more under the supervision of lawyers without the threat of an unauthorized practice of law complaint. It’s a win-win: those in need get increased service from those who can provide it, even if they aren’t full-time lawyers. Kudos to the Alaska Bar and Supreme Court.
Photo Attribution: Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash