A nurse practitioner for legal services?

By Todd Carney 

Over the last few years, the need for corporate legal jobs has consistently declined, despite overall job growth in America. At the same time, there continues to be a pressing need for more lawyers.

Right, it doesn’t make sense. Even though Big Law firms  — which handle major corporate issues  — are using more technology and other resources to cut back on attorneys, there is still a shortage of legal services for one key population.

That would be for low-income people.

Lawyers who can’t crack that top tier are scrambling to land jobs – even lower-paying ones – because many can’t afford not to. Law school debt, anyone? But they can’t manage to offer lower-cost services to the needy because it doesn’t pan out for them or their smaller firms financially.  

While some believe the government should be providing free legal services for all civil disputes, securing funding for such an endeavor is difficult. As a result, there have been many solutions proposed to make legal services cheaper.

The state of Washington’s answer to this problem has been a novel one.

It has established Limited License Legal Technicians — LLLTs. Never heard of them before?  Well, join the crowd ...

But that could change …

These professionals receive more training than paralegals, but much less than lawyers. LLLTs are geared towards helping people with more basic civil legal disputes. The medical profession has found success with a similar strategy, the creation of nurse practitioners.

Those, I bet you’ve heard of …

What is an LLLT?

In 2012, the Washington Supreme Court established LLLTs, after a court commissioned study found vast shortages in meeting low-income legal needs in the state.

LLLTs were given the authority to conduct legal research for clients, explain court procedures to clients and complete forms for clients. To qualify, one needs an associate’s degree, 45 hours of legal studies — which can be done at a number of the state’s community colleges — and have 3,000 hours of supervised legal work.

The average cost for becoming an LLLT is $14,440, which is a fraction of what a law degree costs. (That’s about $83,000 if you go to a public school; $150,000 it you attend a private one.)

LLLTs charge an average of $100 to $150 an hour for their services, as opposed to the $300 to $400 charged on average by an attorney. Currently Washington is the only state that has this service, but Utah is designing a program as well.

How Do LLLTs compare to nurse practitioners?

Nurse practitioners have existed much longer than LLLTs. They started in 1965 and were widespread by the late 1970s.

The 50 years between the creation of nurse practitioners and LLLTs have created stark differences. To start, nurse practitioners are allowed in all 50 states. Additionally, the federal government has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to nurse practitioners’ educational programming, making it more affordable and accessible.

While Washington has supported LLLT education, an ABA-accredited LLLT program is only available at one Washington law school, the University of Washington School of Law. (You need that to be fully qualified.)

Additionally, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing has taken an active role in the education of nurse practitioners by mandating a “doctor of nursing degree” program for all nurse practitioners.

This program was more rigorous than a regular nursing master’s degree, but still much less demanding than a M.D. The increased education requirement allowed for an increase in the scope of responsibilities for nurse practitioners. The Association of American Law Schools has not pushed for further curriculum support for LLLTs yet.

All of these key differences have led to more than 200,000 nurse practitioners currently at work in the nation. In the last five years, there have been 20,000 more nurse practitioners, each and every year. Though this growth has occurred over 50 years, the medical profession has taken an active role in developing these health care professionals.

Limitations to both programs

It is important to note that while nurse practitioners have lowered medical costs, they have not ensured universal medical coverage.

Instead they have improved the quality of medical care by allowing people to have more access to a medical professional and supporting doctors, so they are not spread thin. If someone does not have medical insurance, though, a nurse practitioner is not going to solve that issue for them.

LLLTs have a similar problem. As noted, LLLTs charge $100 to $150 an hour. While that is significantly cheaper than an attorney, if someone has no money for legal help, then they will not be able to hire an LLLT as well.

Still despite this limitation, it would be a mistake to say nurse practitioners have not increased medical access and saved costs. There is hope LLLTs will have the same effect.

Given that the U.S. is unlikely to have universal civil legal representation, people will be looking for ways to make legal services cheaper. The success of nurse practitioners in our nation’s health care system provide promise that LLLTs could have the same effect for legal services.


Todd Carney is a 2L at Harvard Law School, with an interest in legal professions and international law.