Selden makes history with trailblazing legal license: new practice focuses on family law.
She prefers pioneer, but, she admits, the process of becoming a Triple LT has some experimental elements.
"There are tweaks through this thing every so often," she said.
And some of that will continue as she starts her new practice, Columbia Valley Legal Technician Services PLLC, catering to clients seeking a low-cost option for family law cases such as divorce, child support and child custody.
Triple LTs are part of the state judicial system's response to the "justice gap" affecting low and moderate income individuals, those who might otherwise go without legal advice or turn to those working outside the system.
The license, offered only in Washington, though other states are considering similar programs, for the first time allows non-lawyers to provide limited legal services and legal advice in the area of domestic relations or family law without the supervision of a lawyer. Triple LTs are not attorneys. They cannot go to court, negotiate for a client or divide real property or some retirement assets in a divorce. But the services and advice they can provide is sometimes all that's needed, Selden said.
Selden, who has 25 years of experience working as a paralegal, mostly in the Wenatchee Valley, completed the inaugural, live-streamed coursework for the Triple LT program this spring and was one of seven to pass the exams required to get the license in May.
Even then, the process toward licensing required finding answers to questions never before asked, including whether insurance companies would provide malpractice insurance. (Yes, they do.)
Of the seven people in the first class who went on to pass the exams, Selden is the third to get her license and start her practice. Where it goes from here remains to be seen, she said.
From a broader perspective, the hope is it will help bridge the justice gap outlined in a 2003 Civil Legal Needs Study that said 85 percent of people in low-income households who were dealing with legal problems, were representing themselves.
"It has its roots in 'access to justice' and 'consumer protection,'" said Cashmere Attorney Steve Crossland, who helped write the rule allowing the new category of legal providers. He was chairman of the Practice of Law Board for eight years after it was created by the state Supreme Court in 2002.
"The access to justice concerns are that a significant portion of people can't access the legal system because they can't afford lawyers," Crossland said, leaving them either to represent themselves or turn to those who might not provide quality service, leading to the consumer protection concerns.
The previous approach was to address the problem of the unauthorized practice of law through enforcement and punishment to those providing unauthorized legal services. With the burden on the prosecution side, the approach was not effective. The idea the board proposed was to provide an alternative.
"People want legal services, but can't afford them, so we want to meet the marketplace need," he said. "If we fill that need, hopefully they will go to a licensed legal service provider who has the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, who are subject to certain rules of professional conduct, and be better served for same price, or maybe slightly more."
The Triple LTs are a new tool, Crossland said.
"It's not a solution. There is no one solution to the problem," he said.
But if all goes well, it's possible the new license could be expanded to include other fields at some point in the future.
Selden was aware of the new license because she served on the Practice of Law Board, nominated to the position by Crossland, who had gotten to know her through her paralegal work, including serving as the administrator for the Washington State Paralegal Association from 1992 to 1995.
Her work for the association made her more aware of the challenges of changing the system.
"Politically, this has been a hard-sell in the more traditional legal community, though that is changing somewhat," she said.
Some are concerned that legal technicians will take business away from lawyers, while others argue it will increase the justice system gap, providing less qualified legal help for lower income clients.
The bar association, however, ultimately supported the idea, perhaps because the competition already is there with online subscriptions to legal services offered by organizations like Legal Zoom and Legal Shield.
"The world of legal service delivery is changing in a lot of ways, so this has been a little bit of a proactive stance by the bar association to join this movement of the changing world of legal service delivery," she said.
For Selden, and the other newly licensed Triple LTs, the challenge now is getting the practice up and running.
One of her concerns is most of her paralegal experience is in personal injury and employment litigation, real estate, Indian law, bankruptcy, estate planning and probate, rather than family law.
Selden returned to school in 1987 to get her paralegal certification.
"I was turning 30 and decided I needed a real job," she said.
She had been waitressing until then.
She had briefly considered law school after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1977 with a political science degree. She looked at a law school entrance exam and opened it to the page on taxation.
"I slammed it shut so fast. That was all I needed," she said.
She earned her paralegal certification from Edmonds Community College in 1989 then worked for Lacy Kane in East Wenatchee. She was there for four years, until her daughter was born. She worked as the administrator for the Washington State Paralegal Association and then returned to part-time paralegal work when her daughter got older.
She decided to go back to school once again for the Triple LT certificate after finding herself without a job.
"I got laid off from my job and I was pretty old. I thought, what am I going to do next? I thought, first I will paint my house. We did a really good job on the house. Then I thought, maybe I should try this. I'm not a family law specialist, but I helped create this rule. Maybe I should see what it would be like for someone to do this," she said.
Selden said she considered trying to join a firm, which is the route several of the other Triple LTs have taken.
"But it didn't feel like a great match to me or for them," she said. "It's about affordability and accessibility. If I worked at a firm, they'd have to charge more for the overhead. Right now, I'm working from my home. I know how to do that. I'm set up for it. I'm pretty good about being a miser. I know how to function. That's one reason I want my own practice. I can manage myself and I think I can do it without a lot of inefficiency."
She has decided to bill by flat fee rather than hourly, at least for now, she said. She has three reasons:
"1. The paperwork is more straightforward. If someone pays in advance for hourly, that money has to go into a separate trust account and then you chip away at it to pay yourself, but you don't get it until you use those hours. But if you charge a flat fee, it goes right into your account right away," she said.
"2. Who knows how long it's going to take to do work at this point? I will keep track to figure that out.
"3. It seems cleaner and simpler and fairer, somehow. I'm trying to be as streamlined as I can for myself and the client and if they know and I know up front, it's easier."
She is working on a website and Facebook page.
"I'm doing everything incrementally," she said. "I have a fairly conservative personal style, whether it's financially or anything else. So I'm trying to get into it gradually. I don't want to over-promise by accessibility and commitment to clients."
She would like to open an office in downtown Wenatchee in 2016, she said, accessible to public transportation.
In the meantime, she also is contracting with Volunteer Attorney Services, though the details on what, exactly she will do are still being set.
"I'm quite certain they would want me to do everything I can do. There are boundaries on my license. I can't go to a hearing or advise on certain issues. That's where the volunteer attorneys come into play," she said. "And maybe the volunteer attorneys can provide full representation on some of the cases if it's a bigger deal."
She also has contracted to be the new court facilitator for Douglas County, which is outside her private practice, limited to helping filling out paperwork and forms.
Between the two contracts, though, it's like a paid internship in family law issues.
She has made a presentation to the Law and Justice class at Central Washington University and hopes to start mentoring other paralegals interested in getting the Triple LT certification, particularly those who speak Spanish.
As for her long-term plan, she expects to work at least until she's 70, which gives her 10 years.
"I'm 60. I wish they would have passed the rule when I was a whipper snapper at 50," she said. "My hope and plan is to do this until I'm 70. But I'm not getting up at 5 a.m. to go to the office. I will be doing it at my pace. I think I'm OK with working 50 or 60 hours a week. I'm prepared for that. We don't have little kids at home. He works for Douglas County. This is how we see it going.
Even though I was going to school and working for the last couple of years, it wasn't killing me," she said.
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|Title Annotation:||Priscilla Selden|
|Publication:||Wenatchee Business Journal|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2015|
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