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Oregon’s first licensed paralegals hope to widen access to legal help

Oregon’s first cohort of licensed paralegals was sworn in on March 29, 2024 at the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem.
Oregon State Bar
Oregon’s first cohort of licensed paralegals was sworn in on March 29, 2024 at the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem.

This year Oregon became one of only a handful of states with a licensed paralegal program. The goal is to help people get legal assistance in family and housing law.

Roseburg-based paralegal Brandi Cole is getting ready to take the BAR exam later this month. But that test isn’t to become a lawyer. Instead, she’s aiming to be one of Oregon's first licensed paralegals.

Cole, who has an associates degree in paralegal studies from Umpqua Community College, can provide limited services to clients right now. But after getting licensed in tenant-landlord law she can expand her work to things previously only available from lawyers, like meeting with clients and helping them fill out legal forms.

She said that will help more people get some legal assistance, even when her firm’s lawyers are too overloaded to take a new case.

“The impact on access to justice is going to be huge. As of right now, I would say on average our firm turns away six or seven people a week at least,” said Cole.

So far Oregon is offering paralegal licensing in family and housing law. The Oregon State Bar said up to 84% of people in court for these types of cases have no legal assistance. One reason for the lack of representation is the cost. Cole said the new profession will help.

“It's going to be lower cost for people who maybe couldn't afford an attorney but still need the help to kind of guide them through the process. It's going to make a big impact” said Cole.

The Oregon Bar first proposed the profession, sometimes called the nurse practitioners of the legal field, back in 2017. The Oregon Supreme Court approved its creation in 2022, but it didn’t go into effect until January, 2024.

“Help from a legal professional can make a big difference in the outcome of a case, but the majority of Oregonians dealing with housing and family law matters are unrepresented,” said Shannon Gormley of the Oregon State Bar in a statement.

Licensed paralegals will still not take the role of an attorney. In family law they can usually help with the dissolution of a marriage or negotiating custody time but they can’t assist with most appeals and stalking protective orders. In the area of housing law, for example, they can aid clients in forced entry cases but not agricultural or commercial tenant issues.

The first 10 licensed paralegals were sworn in at the Oregon Supreme Court in March.

Only four other states have a similar program. Five states are considering creating the license

Justin Higginbottom is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He's worked in print and radio journalism in Utah as well as abroad with stints in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He spent a year reporting on the Myanmar civil war and has contributed to NPR, CNBC and Deutsche Welle (Germany’s public media organization).