Most attorneys are used to handling all aspects of a case from client onboarding to settlement. But as the world starts to offer more personalized services, potential clients start to expect those same personalized services from their attorney. This is where unbundled legal services come in.
Unbundled legal services, also called limited scope representation or discrete task representation, are when clients hire attorneys to perform only certain tasks for a particular matter, rather than the whole issue.
Common examples of unbundled legal services include:
- Advising clients on their legal rights and responsibilities;
- Conducting one-off legal research;
- Coaching clients on how to present themselves during court procedures or ADR;
- Making limited court appearances on behalf of the client;
- Devising negotiation strategies; or
- Preparing and/or writing legal documents (aka legal ghostwriting).
When offering unbundled legal services, you provide them with support through one phase of the case, but they represent themselves in all other aspects.
With unbundled services, you put the client in the driver’s seat. They get to decide where they need the most help and they also feel educated and empowered enough to manage the other parts of their case.
For example, say a client needs help with an immigration case and hires you just to make certain appearances in court on their behalf because they aren’t comfortable articulating their position in front of a judge. Or a client might come to you wanting help in a divorce case, but only wants your assistance in preparing the briefs, motions, or other court filings. You would help the client prepare those documents, and the client would handle their case from that point.
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Benefits to Clients
Unbundled legal services are an important part of increasing access to justice. Some clients may want to represent themselves for cost reasons and may not be able to afford a full-service attorney. Hiring an attorney shouldn’t be an all or nothing situation for clients. Having the option of which legal services to pay for helps empower clients to move more confidently towards their legal goals.
Unbundled legal services are often priced at a flat rate, which is especially attractive to lower-income clients since they know exactly what they’re paying for ahead of time, unlike with the billable hour. By having the option to hire an attorney only for the more complex or confusing parts of a lawsuit, clients are more empowered to seek recourse in the courts.
With limited scope representation, attorneys can help people who might otherwise have never sought legal assistance and help alleviate the pains of an overburdened court system. Forrest S. Mosten, a California attorney and one of the first to promote unbundled legal services, finds it especially useful for clients in family law matters who want to represent themselves. By providing clients dealing with a divorce or custody matter on strategy, how to handle themselves in court, or how to handle their case in general, attorneys can help clear the path towards resolution for all parties involved.
It’s also important to note that unbundled legal services aren’t just for low-income or family law clients. Solo attorneys and small firms can create a menu of services that cater to different areas of law or to businesses, in-house attorneys, or even boutique law firms. Unbundled legal services are attractive to these types of clients not just because of its affordability, but also because of the time saved by outsourcing and the ability for other attorneys to provide those services quickly and efficiently.
Advantages for Lawyers
While all sorts of clients can benefit from unbundled legal services, this approach also benefits attorneys by increasing your client base, helping your financial bottom line, and helping your firm become more client-centric. Some clients don’t want or can’t afford a full service attorney, but they still need help with their legal services. Providing those types of services exposes your practice to an entirely new client base, giving your firm an advantage over others that don’t.
Many people still view attorneys as an all-or-nothing service. By positioning your firm to offer a single service or a package of services, you’ll attract those who just want a little bit of legal guidance as well as those who want a full-service attorney.
Providing limited scope representation, especially those priced as flat rate services, can also reward attorneys for their experience and efficiency. For example, attorneys may charge a flat $350 to prepare trademark registrations and be able to complete 4 of those in an hour. If your typical hourly rate is $200 an hour, you’ve just earned 7x your typical hour. To boot, many traditional law firms that have offered unbundled legal services to clients have often had those clients convert to full-service clients.
In addition to boosting your client base and financial bottom line, you’ll be able to help more clients in more meaningful ways. You’re listening to what your clients need, where they are financially, and figuring out how to help them in ways that matter most.
Drawbacks to Unbundled Legal Services
Unbundled legal services can benefit both attorneys and clients, but there are also drawbacks to providing these kinds of services. First, attorneys need to make sure that the client understands the scope of representation, especially in regard to what the attorney and client is each responsible for. Having a limited scope engagement agreement is an important practice if you are considering providing unbundled legal services.
Attorneys should also make sure they understand the legal needs of clients seeking unbundled services. While some matters are well suited for unbundled representation, like preparing documents for business formation, other matters, like criminal defense or complex family law issues, would be more appropriate for full service representation.
All of this means being aware of your state’s legal and ethical rules regarding limited scope representation. For example, ABA Model Rule 1.1 requires that clients are given competent representation. Attorneys considering limited scope representation should evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether providing unbundled legal services is reasonable, as required by Model Rule 1.2.
How to Package a la Carte Services
Given the ethical considerations, packaging unbundled legal services is not a straightforward task. Attorneys should first look at the type of work they usually conduct and decide if part of the full-service offerings could be unbundled. As you work with clients, you’ll develop a better sense of what works best and can create personalized packages for them based on their needs, goals, and circumstances. Or you could package your services in tiers, where your top tier is full-service and your lowest tier is providing legal advice and guidance.
In addition to deciding how you want to structure unbundled legal services, you should continue to conduct thorough client intake. This includes conducting conflict checks and keeping records of clients (which is easier with a CRM), as well as making sure clients understand the scope of your representation. Many times, clients are more focused on their end legal goals and don’t always know what it takes to get there. Because of that, you’ll also want to make sure your clients understand the difference between full-service representation and limited representation.
Limited Scope Engagement Agreements
To help clients understand that difference, and to help delineate your role as a limited scope attorney, you should have clients sign a limited scope engagement agreement as part of the onboarding process. This document should be written in plain language, clearly define the specifics of your role, and detail the risk the client takes in not choosing full-service representation. Without the clarity this document provides, clients may misunderstand the scope of the services you’re providing and have incorrect expectations on engaging you as their attorney.
This document is as important for you as it is for the client. If you’re hired to only speak to a specific issue during a hearing, you have to resist the temptation to speak outside of what the limited scope engagement covers. You must allow the client to represent themselves in the portions they agreed to handle.
How to Price Unbundled Legal Services
Setting prices for unbundled legal services is like setting pricing and fees for any part of your firm. Your pricing should be about, and reflect, value for your client and not just your bottom line. You also want to stay competitive with the prices in your area. Conduct some research to see what other attorneys in your geographic area are charging for services, or even go online to see what attorneys are charging in areas similar to yours. For example, if you’re an attorney in Duluth, MN, you might want to see what attorneys are charging in places like Bismarck, ND.
From there, you can choose to price by service, by custom package, or by tiers, if you choose to structure your unbundled services that way. Part of the appeal of unbundled legal services is its flexibility, so don’t get too bogged down in setting strict pricing structures.
No matter how you decide to price your services, you’ll also want to figure out how you want to respond to your current full-service clients if they have questions about the differences in pricing for your unbundled services.
Getting Court Permission for Limited Scope Representation
Some jurisdictions require permission before attorneys can represent clients in a limited capacity. Especially for attorneys making limited appearances on behalf of clients in court, you want to make sure that the court is aware of the limited scope agreement and that the court will allow you to withdraw after that limited appearance. If you’re wondering that the requirements are for your state, the ABA has a great list of unbundling resources by state.
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