Desperate new lawyers starting their own law firms are often tempted to reduce their fee in order to get some money in the door. But performing the same work for less money is foolish. Don’t turn the client away, though; just do less work at your regular rate.

I don’t mean you should stop halfway through the job, I mean you should find a way to serve clients’ needs for a price they can afford. The best way to do this is unbundling.

Traditional lawyering means handling a client’s entire legal matter from beginning to end. Complaint to trial, negotiation to closing, etc. This is great for clients with deep pockets, but it leaves out the “middle class” of clients: those who cannot afford full representation but do not quality for help from Legal Aid. The middle class of clients is huge and under-served, because few lawyers are willing to alter their fee structure to suit its needs.

Some kinds of legal services are basically unbundled by default. Estate planning, for example. You want a will? You buy a will. Litigators can learn from this example.

If someone comes to you with a complaint she just received, does she need an answer, or does she need a lawyer for the whole lawsuit? I think the answer depends. Some clients just need an answer and some good advice on what comes next. Later, she may need discovery requests, or answers to the other party’s discovery requests. Still later, she may need help drafting a summary judgment motion, or pre-trial motions. She may even need a lawyer to handle a hearing or the trial.

My point is that you do not need to bill for all the stuff in between. In fact, babysitting lawsuits is probably the least cost-effective things a lawyer does. It also encourages busy work and high-dollar litigation strategies.

Unbundled services are something to brag about, too. People love to buy just what they need, and you can promise to give them exactly that. This is especially true when sites like LegalZoom are offering all kinds 0f discount legal services. Compete not on price, but on service. You give more, and charge more, but not so much more that your potential clients are tempted by the lowest end.

Instead, when confronted by a client who says he cannot pay your fee, you may want to handle just the next step, not the rest of the lawsuit.