“The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.” – Charles Dickens, “Bleak House”
During the tough economic climate of the last couple of years, people’s needs for legal services have increased tremendously. Unfortunately, their ability to pay for lawyers has drastically diminished. While those below the poverty level are able to qualify for free legal advice, middle class clients who are barely able to pay their everyday bills are finding themselves in a predicament where they have to completely drain their limited financial resources if they need to hire an attorney to represent them in a traditional litigation. Particularly in family law cases in New York, people usually pay a hefty advance retainer in order to start a case. While most clients don’t feel confident enough to represent themselves in court, they don’t have the financial resources to hire an attorney and pay tens of thousands of dollars right away.
Over the past decade many paralegal or non-lawyer type agencies sprang up across the country and especially in New York. These agencies help clients prepare basic legal documents in uncontested divorces, bankruptcy filings, incorporations or immigration petitions. In some cases the paperwork is prepared incorrectly and the people who are doing it are really unqualified to provide an appropriate legal service or needed legal advice. There is definitely a need for competent legal advice but at a reasonable cost.
Lots of small firms and solo practitioners are willing to offer reasonably priced legal advice. They can meet with clients for concrete consultations. They can help them prepare documents through the “unbundled or limited scope services” model. In this model the lawyer is not really retained to represent the client from start to finish but is retained for a specific limited task either to counsel a client who is representing himself or herself during a court case, to prepare a specific document, or respond to a specific letter.
For example, the lawyer may:
- Give advice and information during a consultation;
- Coach a client on how to negotiate with the other side;
- Coach a client on what to expect and how to behave in court;
- Help draft an answer or complaint
- Prepare discovery documents in a litigation case or a motion; or
- Appear in court in some type of a limited capacity.
Rather than being retained to handle the entire “bundle” of a case, the attorney unbundles the service and only performs a certain portion of it. The client saves a lot of money by being able to get the benefit of the lawyer’s advice then do his or her own work instead of just sitting back and having the lawyer handle all of it.
The Small Law Firms Committee of the New York City Bar Association has recently issued a report on best practices for small firms. In it is a section that specifically describes how limited scope representation works and how it can help clients.
While this approach is not a panacea for all types of cases, it may provide many people with an effective method of obtaining competent legal help.
Click Here to view the New York City Bar Association report.
In my practice, I use a separate retainer form for limited scope representation. It outlines specifically what I am hired to do and outlines specifically what the client has committed to do on his/her own.
Often clients who have run out of money in litigation would come to me asking for consulting advice, as they continue to represent themselves in court. They need a consulting attorney who is going to explain to them how to navigate the court process. Clients pay me for the hour of consultation. The next time they need my help they may pay me for my time as well, but I am not really representing them in a case. They receive appropriate legal advice which helps them feel more confident, save a lot of money and effectively represent themselves in a legal process.