The US has moved a step closer to legal liberalisation after the Supreme Court of Washington State adopted amendments proposed by the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) to allow lawyers and non-lawyers to jointly own a law firm.

As the Gazette reported earlier this year, apart from the District of Columbia, where non-lawyer ownership is permitted, representative bodies in the US have strongly opposed non-lawyers entering the regulated legal market, suggesting it will reduce standards and create potential conflicts of interest.

However in 2012 Washington adopted rules establishing limited license legal technicians (LLLT) who, after meeting certain educational requirements, are authorised to handle certain family law matters, but cannot advocate for litigants in court. Unlike paralegals, they are authorised to practise independent of an attorney’s supervision.

Following that decision, the WSBA suggested amendments to the Washington Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers to bring rules governing attorneys into line with LLLT conduct rules.

The bar association says in its amendment document: ’In large part the suggested revisions to the Lawyer RPC seek to recognise, encourage and legitimise the association and interplay of LLLTs and lawyers together in the marketplace and in the profession.’

The state supreme court has now ordered that the rules be adopted. The order states that lawyers and limited license legal technicians ‘may practise in a jointly owned firm or business structure’ as well as share fees and form partnerships.

However, LLLTs cannot have direct supervisory authority over any lawyer, possess a majority ownership interest or exercise controlling managerial authority.

Lawyers with managerial responsibility will be responsible for the conduct of LLLT partners or owners.

The court has asked the WSBA to provide feedback on the rules by 30 November even though the order is now in effect.

The first cohort of 14 paralegals in Washington state graduated from a course in December to become LLLTs. The first licences were issued in the spring.