You’re in a legal battle, and your trial is coming up. You want to testify and need someone to question you on the witness stand. Why not get a lawyer? You respond with, “I’m representing myself because I don’t want a lawyer, don’t need a lawyer and can’t afford a lawyer. How can you suggest…?”
Whoa. Back up. Let’s think about this.
Yes, lawyers can be worse than a pack of orcs and zombies, yetis and gargoyles, krakens and golems, and things that go bump in the night–when they’re on the other side. When they’re working for you, they’re allowed to be orcs and gargoyles.
As a self-represented litigant, you’re in charge of your case. But sometimes you may need someone to help you through a rough patch. That’s when hiring a lawyer on a limited basis makes sense.
Many years ago, I purchased a used car from an auto dealership. The next day, the entire electric system in the car shut down while I was making a left turn. I had the car towed back to the dealership and drove the loaner they gave me to a lawyer’s office. After I told her my story, she offered to write a demand letter on my behalf. I couldn’t afford full representation, but I could afford the small fee she charged for the letter. That letter ripped the dealership to shreds. Soon, I had a much better car.
Today, a transaction like that between the lawyer and me has a name. It’s called unbundled legal services, where an attorney agrees to take on a specific or limited task for a fee. Though I’m now capable of writing my own demand letters, I got a lawyer for a small amount at a time when I needed her services. That’s the main advantage of unbundled legal services. They’re more affordable than full service legal representation. The second best advantage is that as a self-represented litigant, you can be in control of your own case while getting targeted help.
Examples of services unbundled lawyers might provide include
- Writing a demand letter
- Attending a hearing on your behalf
- Writing a motion
- Negotiating a settlement
- Finding supporting cases
- Questioning witnesses
- Arguing a motion
To use unbundled services most effectively, you must properly task a lawyer. Here are some guidelines for hiring unbundled legal services.
Before you hire or pay a lawyer
- Understand what you need a lawyer to do. This will take research on your part and an understanding of your case.
- Come to an agreement with the lawyer about the date and time the work will be done or completed.
- Decide on an amount you’re able/willing to pay.
- Define and write down the task(s) you want the lawyer to do so that both of you understand the scope of the representation and the amount to be paid.
- Prepare to take full advantage of a lawyer’s services. If she is to question witnesses, develop questions for her that are likely to solicit the information you need. Then, use the evidence she gets strategically in your motions and pleadings.
- Know what you’re paying for and what you’re not paying for. If you need a lawyer to argue a motion for summary judgment, determine who will write a proposed order if the lawyer should win. That may not be part of the lawyer’s services. If you want him to write the proposed order, you may have to pay extra.
- Find a lawyer who does unbundled services on a regular basis. You don’t want someone who is confused about the pay structure involved in limited services. You also want someone who can understand their boundaries and respect that you’re in charge.
When hiring a lawyer
- Don’t go to a lawyer expecting him to determine the services you need. He may voluntarily do that, but part of running your own case is knowing the services you need.
- Don’t expect a lawyer to educate you or explain your issues to you unless you’re paying him to do so. You’re running your own case and should already know your issues and challenges.
- Don’t expect a lawyer to find cases for you if that’s not the task you’re paying them for.
- Don’t expect a lawyer to tell you what your next step should be unless you’re hiring them specifically for that purpose.
- Don’t let the lawyer advertise full representation. If that’s not what you want or can afford, don’t let him waste your time.
- Don’t agree to additional charges. You don’t want to come home to a bill for lawyer fees you thought you’d already paid. All costs for a service should be included in the amount a lawyer charges for that particular service. Both you and the lawyer should agree on the amount for those services with no extra fees attached.
Self-representation means you run your own case. While many self-represented litigants may never hire a lawyer, others may feel the need to do so. If you’re the latter, stay in the loop about your case by properly tasking any lawyer you hire. That is, tell him what to do and make sure he understands what needs to be done. Then, turn him loose on your opponent.