State Bar of Texas

Message From the Chair
– Christopher K. Wrampelmeier

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The new year sees the Family Law Section continuing to address 2023 challenges. As you may remember from my previous messages, on October 24, 2022, Justice Brent Busby  sent a letter to the Texas Access to Justice Commission (TAJC), asking TAJC to examine (1) modifications that would allow qualified non-attorney paraprofessionals to provide limited legal services directly to low-income Texans and (2) modifications that would allow non-attorneys to have economic interests in entities that provide legal services to low-income Texans while preserving professional independence. Justice Busby asked TAJC to consider whether to recommend that the second proposed modifications be studied through a pilot program or regulatory sandbox and whether those modifications should focus on certain services for which there is a particular need.

 

The Family Law Section, being a part of the Texas State Bar, is subject to the Bar’s rules. As such, the Family Law Section may not assert an independent position regarding legislative, judicial, or executive action unless permission has been first obtained by a majority vote of the State Bar Board after compliance with the applicable sections of the Bar’s policy. For this reason, the Family Law Section could provide resource information as requested during this process but could not take an official position on these proposals.

 

On December 15, 2023, the Board of TAJC voted to make clear its strong concerns about the detrimental effects of the proposal allowing non-lawyers to own legal entities and to share that there were not major concerns regarding the paraprofessional proposal. Note that the Supreme Court retains the power to implement one, both, or none of these proposals regardless of TAJC’s votes. There is no timetable for the Court to make any decisions.

 

Under the TAJC-approved proposal to allow paraprofessionals to perform limited services without attorney supervision—reached after careful discussion and many drafts in the Working Group (the guiding body for the project)—a trained paraprofessional in family law may (1) assist a client in completing and filing court-approved forms, (2) represent a client in an uncontested courtroom proceeding (such as a prove-up hearing or scheduling conference), (3) provide procedural information, and (4) communicate with court staffs, attorneys, and paraprofessionals regarding matters (1) – (3).

 

Paraprofessionals may only perform these unsupervised services in:

  • uncontested divorce cases that do not involve suits affecting the parent-child relationship and that have limited property issues (g., cases involving no third-party sale/title transfer of real estate or division/transfer of retirement benefits owned by the parties) and
  • uncontested suits under Title IV of the Texas Family Code and in uncontested suits affecting the parent-child relationship (including uncontested suits under Title I and V of the Texas Family Code) that involve only standard conservatorship provisions, standard possession schedules, and guideline child support issues.

 

This restricted role for paraprofessionals in family law can be seen as a balance between the goals of providing justice for all Texans and of preserving the integrity of our legal system. This proposal could help pro se litigants using court-approved forms navigate their way through the legal system in uncontested suits. These paraprofessionals could help judges with uncontested pro se family law dockets, which in turn may allow judges to devote more time to contested suits and may increase public confidence in our legal system. The final proposal was a compromise and, while no compromise is perfect, our section’s participation in the development of this proposal gave the Family Law Section a crucial say in what that final proposal would be.

 

The Family Law Section provided feedback to TAJC strongly expressing its view that there was no evidence non-lawyer ownership of legal entities (NLOs) would improve legal services for the disadvantaged. The proposal further would not have restricted NLOs’ services to Texans with low incomes.

 

On January 27, 2024, I attended the State Bar Board of Directors meeting in San Antonio. In the public comment portion after the Texas Access to Justice Commission report, I stated that while NLOs could provide document assembly programs like Turbo Tax does for tax returns, I could not see NLOs meeting their business models if they stop to listen to the clients, to discern their needs, to help them determine the best strategies for meeting those needs, to advise them on settlements, and to represent them in all counties of this state. I predicted that NLOs would not address the family law issues Texans with low incomes face, which is not access to the legal system—already provided by Supreme Court-approved forms—but legal advice. I foresaw NLOs widening the gap in legal advice between the haves and the have nots. Businesses work to drive out competition. For NLOs, that competition would include the family lawyers who provide legal advice to Texans with low incomes and rural Texans. I maintained that NLOs would make it even harder for young lawyers, rural lawyers, and lawyers serving low-income Texans to practice family law and to provide the legal advice those Texans need.

 

I urged the Supreme Court, TAJC, and the State Bar to work to get more lawyers to practice and thrive providing family law legal services to disadvantaged Texans. The State Bar Board’s Affordable Legal Services Subcommittee of the State Bar Board is seeking input from the Bar Section leaders about the recommendations and thoughts on effective ways to bring justice to all. If have any thoughts or suggestions on the topic, please email them to ckw@uwlaw.com. The deadline for our input to the Bar is March 1, 2024, but we have a little more time to respond to TAJC.

 

Thank you for your dedication to the Family Law Section, to the practice of family law, and to Texans of all income levels.

Christopher K. Wrampelmeier

Chair, Family Law Section