How To Make Unbundled Legal Services Work For You

The rise of unbundled legal services represents a big change in the legal profession. In the old days, buying legal services meant hiring a lawyer to represent us in court, but nowadays we can often get bite-sized legal services at bite-sized costs.

When used properly, these kinds of services can give self-represented litigants the juice we need to get a fair hearing on our cases. Pro se litigants come at all levels of preparation. We’re not a monolithic bunch; not easy to typecast. But the truth is, most of us would hire a lawyer in an instant if we could afford it and could trust someone to care about our cases the way we do.

For too many of us these days, hiring a lawyer is just not an option. So we step up to the plate and learn whatever’s necessary to do the job ourselves. Still, even when we’re gung-ho and ready for battle, we often need help with our cases. Of course, every lawyer wants a fat retainer and complete control over a case. That’s what they’ve been trained to expect. But like nearly everything else, the legal profession is ruled by supply and demand.

There are simply too many lawyers, with more and more graduating each year. And with an economy that remains in the toilet, hungry lawyers are competing for a smaller crop of customers able to pay. That same bad economy is driving hordes of regular people into court without legal assistance or representation.

In some jurisdictions, four of every five civil cases now involves a pro se litigant. And since most of us lack the skills necessary to navigate the legal system, we’re clogging the pipes and/or losing when we should be winning. Public perceptions of fairness in the courts is trending lower as a result. The legal profession, with its mandate to ensure access to justice, is getting the side eye from everyone. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to feed smaller meals to a larger number of lawyers. Some clients may need only a phone call for advice on the best procedures. Others could be well served with some legal research, or a synopsis of case law on a certain issue. Some may want help writing an important motion. Still others might hire a lawyer just to conduct a deposition or argue a motion in court.

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All of these are part of a menu of unbundled legal services, á la carte items offered to clients on a limited-representation basis. The American Bar Association amended its Rules of Professional Conduct over a decade ago to help lawyers offer these services. Rule 1.2(c) states:

A lawyer may limit the scope of the representation if the limitation is reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.

Most states have adopted some version of the Rule and added additional guidance. Essentially, a lawyer should decide whether a potential client’s case is simple enough to benefit from a series of sharply defined tasks, or whether full representation is in the client’s best interest. The ABA has begun to encourage lawyers to offer unbundled legal services as a way to boost access to justice, even providing standard contracts called limited scope engagement agreements that detail the specific tasks to be completed by the lawyer.

According to some in the profession, the biggest hurdle for many lawyers is aligning client expectations with the limited scope of representation. In that vein, be careful what you ask for. There is a danger in using unbundled legal services badly. There’s lots of guidance for lawyers on how to handle these engagements, but very little for clients. As pro se litigants, we’re at tremendous disadvantage against the opposing lawyers in our cases. We’re often desperate to understand what’s happening or what we should be filing in court. It is tempting to rely on the lawyer we’ve hired for an hour or two to tell us how to win our cases. That’s an unrealistic expectation. You don’t want to rely on a limited-scope lawyer for strategy and initiative on your case.

A lawyer can’t do that effectively without taking on the whole case, and they generally won’t do the necessary research for a small fee. Until you hire a lawyer for full representation, you still have to shoulder your case.

You have to treat a lawyer’s limited-scope services the way you’d treat any other service — specifying exactly what is to be done and making sure you get what you pay for. For those of us unwilling to do that, engaging a lawyer for unbundled legal services can only lead to disappointment for both sides.

So start by determining what you need. When you’ve narrowed it down, go looking for a provider. No matter whom you choose, expect the lawyer to angle for full representation. They’re just built that way, and it’s never a bad idea to hear them out as long as it’s on their dime.

We can’t make a recommendation because there are too many to count. In fact, since unbundling is so widespread, your best bet could be to find a local lawyer you respect and ask if he or she offers unbundled legal services. To make your dime effective, be sure to know ahead of time how you want the engagement to end. Don’t bother buying unbundled legal services if all you know is “I need to talk with a lawyer.” Do you need some case law in your jurisdiction on a specific issue? Do you need help pleading affirmative defenses in a way that won’t get them struck? Do you need help preparing discovery, or responding to it?

Be as specific as you can about what you need right now before forking over the cash. Bite-sized work for bite-sized cash is best. You can always go back for more later.

Have you used unbundled legal services? Share your experience in the comments. Are you considering it? I’d love to hear your concerns below.

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