Paula Littlewood, IAALS Board Member and Legal Rebel, Urges Profession to Break Out of Echo Chamber

December 3, 2020

Earlier this year, Paula Littlewood, IAALS Board of Advisors member and past executive director of the Washington State Bar Association, was a guest on ABA Journal’s Legal Rebels podcast. During the episode, she spoke about how she came to be an advocate for re-regulation, the need for lawyers to engage the public when it comes to regulatory changes, and Washington State’s pioneering limited legal license technician (LLLT) program.

Littlewood explained that she became a champion for legal re-regulation when she served as the head of the supreme court’s regulatory agency (i.e., the state bar association) and learned about the longstanding unmet legal needs in our country—according to data from the Legal Services Corporation, these needs have not been alleviated over the past 40–50 years and, in fact, may have worsened. This motivated her “desire to be a more accessible profession for the consumer.”

She discussed two “flavors” of regulatory reform: regulating the provider and regulating the system. Washington, with its LLLT program, has led the way on the former, taking an approach that Littlewood calls the “disaggregation of the legal service provider.” Similar to what happened within the medical profession decades ago, many are realizing that not every legal problem needs a lawyer—and that creating new tiers of legal professionals is actually in lawyers’ best interest, as it will free up their bandwidth for more complex tasks.

“One of the issues in both the United States and in Canada—so, in North America—is that we’ve sort of held on to this monopoly, right?” Littlewood explained. “So in both countries we were granted a complete monopoly on legal services. We’re trying to hold onto this monopoly, but many pieces of it were lost a while ago—and I think, really, there’s more control in letting go, if that makes sense. In other words, to the extent we decide ‘here are the things that we can let go of and other people—or another system—can handle’, we actually maintain control over the system overall.” Ergo, by creating the LLLT program, the Washington Supreme Court was able to retain control of the practice of law in the state.

In order to break outside this monopoly, Littlewood says, advocates must first break outside the “echo chamber of the profession” and include the public (i.e., the consumer) in discussions around regulatory reform. Consumers are already indicating what they want by choosing services such as LegalZoom, Modria, and others, many of which are easier and less expensive options than a traditional lawyer. Now is the time for lawyers to figure out how to stay in the mix, as well as to ensure that consumer protection is embedded in these new services. “For lawyers, in particular, change is hard. And I don’t think that’s a criticism; I think it’s how we’re trained. We’re trained to be risk-averse, we’re trained to be precedent-bound.”

Littlewood also discussed Washington State’s groundbreaking LLLT program, which was established in 2012. The program was still in its early stages when the supreme court announced its decision to sunset it this past June, and Littlewood noted how the LLLT Board had quite the uphill climb when it came to getting an entirely new profession off the ground, as well as the wrench this decision has thrown in many LLLT-hopefuls’ plans. “We definitely had demand from students—the understanding right now is that there were 275–300 in the pipeline from the community colleges when the license was sunsetted, and it’s really upended some people’s lives.”

Yet Littlewood doesn’t think the court’s decision will slow down similar programs that are in the works elsewhere, and states that are considering them—like Oregon and New Mexico—can hopefully draw from Washington’s model. Her advice to these states and other states making progress in the area of regulatory reform is to be bold and put the consumer first. “There’s time for incremental change and there’s time for bold change, and I think the time now is for bold change.”

Dive Deeper