A US state is set to take a first step towards England and Wales-style legal liberalisation by formally authorising non-lawyers to advise clients in legal matters.

Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) is also proposing allowing non-lawyers to own stakes in firms.

The first cohort of 14 paralegals in Washington state graduated last month from a course to become limited license legal technicians (LLLTs). The first licences, to practise family law, will be issued by June.

The change comes more than two years after the scheme was approved in the Washington Supreme Court and marks a landmark moment for a US profession that has so far largely resisted calls for liberalisation of the legal services market.

Apart from the District of Columbia, where non-lawyer ownership is permitted, representative bodies have opposed non-lawyers entering the regulated legal market, suggesting it will reduce standards and create potential conflicts of interest.

Paula Littlewood (pictured), executive director of the WSBA, said that change has been driven by the emergence of an unregulated market and the estimated 80% of low- and middle-income Americans who cannot afford to pay for legal services.

‘It is either change or the market will change around you,’ said Littlewood. ‘This is just the beginning – [the reforms] have only been approved in one area but we’re already looking at the next one.’

She said there is interest from other states, including New Mexico and Colorado, in learning more about the scheme. A taskforce in California is expected to report back later this year. New York has allowed non-lawyers to provide legal assistance in limited circumstances.

Littlewood revealed that many lawyers have fought against the advent of LLLTs and admitted the change remains controversial.

‘The chair of the LLLT board for 10 years jokes that he can still see the target on his back,’ she added.

The WSBA board has also proposed limited joint ownership of firms, with restrictions on LLLTs directing a lawyer’s judgement or possessing a majority stake.

Gillian Hadfield, director of the Center for Law and Social Science at the University of Southern California, told the Gazette that most of the US profession remains opposed to LLLTs.

Objections range from the market already being saturated, to the potential for poor quality advice for the most vulnerable members of society.

‘I don’t imagine this will put an end to further calls for liberalisation,’ she added.

‘Those of us making those calls emphasise that this is not the most important move to be making – the need is for corporate practice of law/ABS/non-lawyer participation and investment. I suspect this is a process that leads in that direction.’