Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast: New Report Examines Non-Lawyer Legal Service Provider Programs in 16 States

Carl Rauscher          
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WASHINGTON – Experts from the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) discuss how and why states are using non-lawyer legal service providers on the latest episode of LSC’s “Talk Justice” podcast, released today. Talk Justice Co-host Cat Moon is joined by guests Michael Houlberg, director of special projects for IAALS, and Jim Sandman, president emeritus of LSC and IAALS board member.  

IAALS’ November 2022 report, “The Landscape of Allied Legal Professional Programs in the United States,” compiles data from 16 states. Some, like Utah and Arizona, had begun implementing legal paraprofessional programs, while others, like Colorado and Connecticut, had programs under consideration at the time of the report.  

While the title for the legal service providers created through these programs varies from state to state, Houlberg refers to them as “legal practitioners.” The goal of these programs is to expand access to legal help both by boosting the number of professionals able to help people, and creating a lower cost option for those who cannot afford an attorney. 

“It’s really creating an ecosystem of legal service providers, and we’re seeing different states really thrive in different ways with this,” Houlberg says. “But the allied legal professionals, they’re really hitting the middle-income population.” 

Explaining why these programs are needed, Sandman cites the World Justice Project, which in 2022 ranked the United States 115th out of 140 countries on the metric “people can access and afford civil justice.” Currently, the income cut-off for civil legal aid eligibility is $29,160, Sandman says, leaving millions of middle-class Americans who cannot afford $300-500 an hour for an attorney without access to justice. 

“We need to be able to get assistance to people who need help with their civil legal needs and the current system that says only lawyers can do that is a failure,” Sandman says. 

 The abilities of these practitioners vary across programs. Some states allow legal practitioners to fill out or file forms, while others allow them to give advice or argue in court without a supervising attorney present. Sandman explains that the programs have been thoughtfully designed to deploy legal practitioners to the case areas with the most need, where the stakes are high and access to lawyers is low.  

“[The programs are] typically limited to particular subject matter areas such as family law and housing, which makes sense because family law cases and housing cases are among those where there are the largest percentages of self-represented litigants, and the consequences are very big in those cases,” says Sandman.  

“They're very thoughtful in prescribing the precise tasks that the allied legal professionals can perform,” Sandman continues. “People have thought about what you might really need only a lawyer to do and what other competent, trained, licensed, regulated professionals who don't have a J.D. might be able to do and provide meaningful help to people.” 

Both Houlberg and Sandman are optimistic about the potential for these programs to expand access to justice. Houlberg hopes to see a more uniform system, including the creation of a universal term for the legal practitioners, as well as a more standard exam across states.  

Sandman states that the public response to these programs—specifically in Arizona where significant public outreach effort was made through town halls and focus groups—has been exceedingly positive.  

“Where you do get meaningful public input, what it shows is that the public favors programs like this by about the same super majorities that lawyers, on the basis of no evidence, oppose them,” says Sandman. 

“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 discuss emerging research on the benefits and drawbacks of remote court proceedings. 

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.