For about five months, a handful of Minnesota legal paraprofessionals have quietly settled into courtrooms to answer a powerful question: Can they use their skills, under the supervision of a licensed state attorney, to fill the glaring gaps in legal representation? Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen is optimistic about the idea. He liaises with the implementation committee of the two-year legal paraprofessional pilot project, which is modeled on other successful projects across the country; all aim to increase access to civil legal representation, primarily in the areas of housing and family disputes. Thissen says more about the pilot project, how lawyers’ concerns are handled, and the possible positive dividends for clients and the courts.
Q: Let’s start with the issue(s) you hope the driver will fix.
A: The fundamental problem is that too many people in Minnesota have real legal needs and cannot afford an attorney. There is a lot of good work going on, like legal aid, which is doing a terrific job despite continuing underfunding. We also have pro bono lawyers, but we can’t get out of this problem. A good visual is to imagine filling the US Bank Stadium with people, then offering them a total of 20 lawyers to take care of everyone’s pressing legal issues. These are civil cases about whether people are going to have a roof over their heads, whether they can prevent financial problems from turning into financial ruin. These are issues that affect people’s daily lives in the most fundamental way.
Q: What do you hope to learn from the pilot?
A: The pilot project, which launched last March but got off to a real start about five months ago, will test and assess whether allowing legal paraprofessionals to provide additional services will increase access to competent representation. and quality for low- and modest-income litigants in Minnesota and will reduce court congestion.
Q: What kinds of help can they offer?
A: Under the pilot, they are able to provide advice 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 and paternity disputes. Questions.
Q: And note right away that they don’t work alone.
A: Each paralegal operates under the supervision of an attorney to ensure that they do not enter into areas beyond their scope of practice.
Q: Yet I take it you still had to reassure the lawyers that their roles are not being usurped?
A: A slippery slope is their biggest concern…and making sure the legal services people get are competent.
Q: Your answer?
A: First of all, he’s a pilot. We test. We’ll take a look at it and if it doesn’t increase access or there are quality issues, we’ll fix it. Second, we focus on areas where lawyers are not usually present, such as housing. With evictions, for example, less than 5% of tenants have a lawyer. On the other hand, most homeowners can’t afford a lawyer either.
Q; And having legal representation can help everyone.
A: Hennepin County has been at the forefront of getting people’s representation on housing issues. The county learned that when a tenant was represented, the results were remarkably better. There were fewer evictions, and when a tenant was evicted, they had a lot more time to move out.
Q: How many paraprofessionals are participating?
A: Over a dozen have been certified. We haven’t had much feedback from the judges they have appeared before, but as far as paraprofessionals and lawyers go, it seems to be working well. The folds are settling.
Q: Are other states launching similar pilots?
A: The best in this area is Utah, which has launched its own licensed paralegal practitioner program allowing non-lawyer licensees to undertake limited legal work. Some states are moving forward with such programs, including New York, California, Arizona, and other countries including England.
Q: Was it legally necessary to develop this pilot project at the state Supreme Court level?
A: The most basic reason [to launch it there] it’s that we have laws and rules that only allow lawyers to do certain things. The Supreme Court had to put in place a rule stating that it was acceptable for non-lawyers to appear in court and provide legal advice in these limited areas. And the court can play a leading role in motivating lawyers. Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea was a powerful force behind the pilot.
Q: This reminds me of the debate several years ago about whether dental therapists could take on some of the roles traditionally held by dentists. It is now a growing model. Do you see any other parallels in other professions?
A: Another would be nurse practitioners who over the past 25 years are taking on more of the roles that doctors have always played, increasing access. The advantage of limiting this pilot project to housing and family law is that we can test it to see if law firms can use their paralegals as service extenders. This can expand their business.
Q: To be part of the pilot, what qualifications do legal paraprofessionals need to have?
A: Either a paralegal 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 have not yet passed the bar exam. They dive into the details. Even today, when cases are prepared by attorneys, the paralegal often gathers all the facts and understands what is required under the law to get things done. They talk to customers, relating to people on a personal level. I have full confidence that the people we have certified to do this will provide excellent services to people. If paralegals or attorneys are interested in participating, or if someone in need of legal services would like to learn more, we have a website with lots of information. Go to mncourts.gov.