The Oregon State Bar recently decided to create a paraprofessional licensing program. Once active, this program will allow Oregon paralegals to represent clients in certain types of landlord-tenant and family law cases.
The program aims to reduce the backlog of landlord-tenant cases in Oregon and to improve access to legal help for families. The Oregon State Bar is currently accepting public comments on the proposed changes.
What do the new rules change?
Only attorneys licensed in Oregon may advise clients on landlord-tenant or family law matters. Paralegals may support attorneys and talk to clients, but they may not provide legal advice. Doing so could expose a paralegal to penalties for engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Under the proposed rule changes, a licensed Oregon paralegal could represent clients in claims under the Oregon Residential Landlord/Tenant Act and in landlord/tenant claims involving forcible entry and wrongful detainer.
Paralegals would also be able to represent clients in specific family law claims, including:
- Divorce, separation, or annulment
- Custody and parenting time
- Child and spousal support
- Contempt claims that do not involve confinement.
To earn the qualifications to represent clients, paralegals may be required to perform up to 1500 hours of “substantive paralegal work,” including minimum hour requirements in the type of law they wish to practice. A licensed attorney may be required to sign off on this work to prove it has been completed.
In addition, paralegals who practice law under the proposed rules must meet many of the exact requirements as attorneys. These include continuing legal education hours, special trust accounts for handling client funds, and malpractice insurance coverage.
Why is the Oregon State Bar considering this rule change?
The rule change focuses on two areas of law: the need for legal representation is extremely high, and where many people cannot currently find help.
A 2019 Portland State University study found that Oregon residents living near the poverty line are more likely to face landlord-tenant issues. Yet they are also the least likely to have access to affordable legal services.
The study surveyed 1,000 Oregon residents with incomes at or below the poverty level. About half needed to figure out where to turn if they needed legal help. Less than one in four had even contacted a lawyer; not all successfully found one who could take their case.
Even when people need an attorney’s help, they don’t always get it. Oregon state court records show that about 83 percent of tenants in landlord-tenant disputes represent themselves in court. About 71 percent of parties in divorce cases appear without representation.
Oregon allows parties to represent themselves in court without legal counsel. However, parties who represent themselves must follow the same rules and procedures as those with lawyers. The burden of navigating regulations and paperwork can be overwhelming for people unfamiliar with the judicial system.
Should I rely on a paralegal in my family law case?
Many family law issues are straightforward. Others are complex. Nuances in the law, disputes between the parties, and other details can turn a seemingly simple case into a baffling one.
Paralegals with experience, education, and training in family law may be equipped to handle straightforward family law cases. Yet it’s impossible to know when a patient begins whether it will be straightforward or complicated. Even an experienced paralegal may need a lawyer’s assistance if the matter becomes too challenging.
Experienced family law attorneys have seen it all. They can predict when cases are more likely to get complicated. They can take steps to keep a case on a smooth, straight path and minimize complexities. They know how to discuss the law nuancedly with judges and opposing counsel.
Working with a paralegal provides value to those who would otherwise go it alone. Working with an attorney provides the best chance of success, no matter how complicated the path gets.
Paralegals will only be able to represent clients once the new paraprofessional licensing program takes effect. If you have a family law question, an experienced family law attorney can help. Talk to Gearing, Rackner, & McGrath LLP team to learn more about your options.