Anyone who has been in the legal profession over the past two years knows that the pandemic wreaked nationwide havoc on our industry. Illnesses, forced remote work, court closures, and technology challenges all became the norm in a vastly abnormal world.
In Oregon and several other states, the pandemic also created a perfect storm that left many needy legal consumers out in the cold.
First, funding for legal aid organizations dropped off dramatically.
That meant that people who couldn’t afford to pay exorbitant attorney fees suddenly had nowhere to turn when faced with legal issues. Disproportionately, the people who face issues with family law and landlord/tenant disputes are the ones in need of low-cost legal services.
Secondly, the pandemic caused a sharp rise in family law matters and landlord/tenant disputes.
In Oregon, this caused such a backlog in cases that the State’s Supreme Court decided to implement an innovative — if not controversial — solution.
The program, which went into effect in July of this year, allows paralegals to practice law within these severely overburdened practice areas.
Oregon is not the first state to enact such a program, nor will it be the last.
In fact, the State of Washington created such a program back in 2015. And while that program was lauded by the Stanford University Law School as a great success, it is being shuttered by that state’s Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, multiple other states either have a paralegal-practice program in place or are considering one in the near future.
In this article, we’re going to examine Oregon’s Licensed Paralegal Program, which is governed by a new set of Practice Rules promulgated by the State Supreme Court.
What are the requirements for entering the Licensed Paralegal Program?
Just because you happen to be a paralegal in the State of Oregon does not mean you are automatically allowed to start representing clients in court. The State has enacted some fairly strict admissions requirements, including (but not limited to):
- An application that includes a portfolio of relevant legal work done within the prior three years;
- A certificate of good standing (if the applicant worked as a paralegal outside the State of Oregon);
- Completion of an approved paralegal program, a Bachelor’s degree, or a Juris Doctor degree from an accredited law school;
- Completion of 20 hours of professional education in the 18 months preceding admission;
- Demonstrated knowledge of the rules of professional conduct; and
- Between 750 and 1,500 hours of relevant substantive legal work in the 18 months preceding the application.
What areas of law can Oregon paralegals practice?
As noted above, Oregon’s Licensed Paralegal Program was designed to fill the gap in available legal services for those needing assistance with family law or landlord/tenant law disputes.
Within those practice areas, however, paralegals are limited to the following issues:
- Dissolution of marriage
- Separation or annulment
- Custody and parenting time
- Child support and spousal support
- Remedial contempt (excluding confinement)
- Actions arising under Oregon’s Residential Landlord/Tenant Act
- Forcible entry and wrongful detainer
Notably absent from this list are more complex issues such as commercial lease disputes, paternity disputes, and adoptions.
Nonetheless, the Program allows paralegals to provide substantive legal services in the areas of greatest need.
What specific services can Oregon paralegals provide within these practice areas?
According to a statement released by the Oregon State Bar, Licensed Paralegals can do the following:
- Enter into contractual relationships with clients to provide legal representation. In family law matters, paralegals are limited to representing individuals.
- Meet with potential clients to evaluate their cases, determine needs and goals, and provide advice.
- Assist clients with choosing, drafting, and filing forms.
- Draft pleadings and other documents, including orders and judgments.
- File documents/pleadings with the court (or cause them to be filed).
- Prepare and serve written discovery and responses to written discovery.
- Schedule, compel, and attend depositions, but not take or defend them. Licensed Paralegals can help clients prepare for taking a deposition and being deposed.
- Prepare for, participate in, and represent clients in settlement discussions, including mediation.
- Assist with preparation for hearings, trials, and arbitrations.
- Prepare clients for court appearances and judicial settlement conferences.
- Attend court appearances and depositions with clients to provide support and assistance with procedural matters.
- Respond to court inquiries on behalf of clients when requested.
- Review opinion letters, court orders, and notices with clients and explain how they impact the client, including the client’s right to appeal.
Ultimately, the Oregon Licensed Paralegal Program seems like a win-win for paralegals, courts, and clients.
Qualified paralegals will have the opportunity to provide (and be directly paid for) more substantive legal work.
Courts will be able to move family law and landlord/tenant law cases through their dockets at a much faster clip.
And legal consumers will have greater access to affordable legal representation.
In light of all that good news, let’s hope the Oregon Licensed Paralegal Program yields successful outcomes. If it does, we just may see more and more states allowing paralegals to take on greater responsibilities.
In the meantime, if you want more information about Oregon’s program, you can watch a video explaining how the program was intended to work.