Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast: Mobilizing Non-Lawyers for Limited-Scope Legal Assistance in Alaska

Carl Rauscher       
Director of Communications and Media Relations

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WASHINGTON– Legal experts discuss Alaska’s recent approval of the use of supervised non-lawyers to provide limited-scope legal assistance on the latest episode of LSC's “Talk Justice” podcast, released today. LSC President Ron Flagg hosts the conversation with guests Nikole Nelson, executive director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC); Dr. Robert Onders, medical director Maniilaq Health Corporation; and Rebecca Sandefur, sociologist and professor at Arizona State University.   

The Alaska Supreme Court has approved non-lawyers supervised by ALSC providing limited-scope legal assistance without violating unauthorized practice of law restrictions. ALSC plans to use this new model to provide services in remote communities where lawyers are scarce.

Alaska faces unusual challenges due to its vast size, infrastructure and diverse population. About half of Alaskans live in urban areas, but the remaining half live in small, isolated villages—most of which are not accessible by a road and broadband connectivity is uncommon. The state is home to 229 tribal nations and within the Anchorage school system alone, 100 different languages are spoken.

“While, these particular features are unique and really escalated in Alaska, we face the same problems that I think every other legal aid I've ever met faces to some degree, which is there are far [more] people who are asking us for help than we're able to provide services to,” said Nelson.  

Nelson and Onders worked together to create the ALSC Community Justice Worker Program starting in 2017. They were inspired by tribally-based healthcare programs that used similar models that enabled people who were not doctors to expand access to care.

Sandefur explains that not very long ago, physicians were the only people authorized to perform most medical services. However, it was quickly evident that there were not enough doctors to meet the need, so new models of care were developed that included non-doctors trained in a specific scope of care, like physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

“It's a fantastic way of providing targeted care that's proportionate to what people need…so I think medicine gives us a nice example of how we might do this in other arenas of life like law,” says Sandefur.

Originally, in the Community Justice Worker Program, non-lawyers could work only in a few areas without violating unauthorized practice of law rules. These included things like food stamps, debt collection avoidance, estate planning and domestic violence protection orders.

In 2022, the Alaska State Bar and the Alaska Supreme Court supported ALSC’s ask to change unauthorized practice of law regulations so they could expand the Community Justice Worker Program.

In some other states, the conversations around this kind of regulatory reform have been met with concerns about the quality of legal services provided by non-lawyers. Onders says that in medical models of the same type, the quality of services has not decreased.

“I think it's actually an enhancement of the service that we're delivering, because many times the [physician assistants and nurse practitioners] have a limited scope, so they know that scope very well, and they have the capacity to spend the additional time with the person that they're seeing in order to deliver that service.”  

Talk Justice episodes are available online and on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple and other popular podcast apps. The podcast is sponsored by LSC’s Leaders Council.

The next episode of the podcast will be recorded live at LSC’s Innovations in Technology Conference with Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i, Nalani Fujimori Kaina , and Executive Director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, Bob Glaves.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974. For 50 years, LSC has provided financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. The Corporation currently provides funding to 131 independent nonprofit legal aid programs in every state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.