The Judicial Branch’s Rules Committee is being called upon to make changes to Practice Book language in order to reduce concerns about law students providing legal assistance to the domestic violence victims.

There is an increasing emphasis on law school students gaining hands-on experience before they graduate with their J.D. or pass the bar exam. But along with that trend comes new concerns that the students might be technically committing unauthorized practice of law.

Now state bar leaders are examing that issue.

Under current Practice Book rules, law students are permitted to assist practicing lawyers and professors in court. They are also permitted to work with “clients,” but only in a clinical setting, unless directly supervised by a licensed lawyer. But one of the major pro bono efforts in Connecticut has law students going to courthouses and helping domestic violence victims fill out requests for restraining orders. Because there is not always a professor or supervising lawyer nearby, some have voiced concern that students are crossing the line into UPL.

The Judicial Branch’s Rules Committee is being called upon to make changes to Practice Book language in order to reduce concerns about students providing assistance to domestic violence victims.

One proposal, which was the subject of a recent editorial in the Connecticut Law Tribune, seeks to provide law students with a “safe harbor” by adding an exception to the rule to allow law students to give legal advice in very limited circumstances.

In the editorial, the Law Tribune’s Editorial Board recommends that the rules of unlicensed practice of law be altered to state “unequivocally that the advice and drafting assistance provided to self-represented applicants for domestic violence protective orders by volunteer law students is a permissible activity.”

Several committees, including the Rules Committee and a work group of the Connecticut Bar Association, are looking into the proposal.

Judge William Bright, who chairs the Judicial Branch’s Pro Bono Committee and is also on the Rules Committee, sent the editorial to the Rules Committee for review. “The CBA has not taken a position because it is unclear what the editorial thought the problem was, whether it actually exists, and, if so, how it might be addressed,” said Mark Dubois, the former state chief disciplinary counsel and the president-elect of the CBA.

Some members of the bar have expressed concern that the state not go too far in relaxing the UPL rules. One of those concerned parties is associate professor Carolyn Wilkes Kaas, of Quinnipiac University School of Law, who is the co-director of the law school’s Center on Dispute Resolution and director of the Legal Clinic.

“We do need to revise the student practice rule,” Kaas said. “I want to make sure we are encouraging as many law students as we can to do as many things as they can to learn the practice of law, like take depositions or run a status conference. But if we change the rules, we’ve got to make sure there is a lot of supervision. We don’t want the rules to be too broad.”

The Rules Committee will discuss the issue further at its next meeting later in February.