Unbundling Legal Services: What Are They, Who Are They for, and How Do I Get Started?
In the past year, we have heard a lot about the development of virtual law offices, an increasing lack of access to legal services by consumers, and a growing number of attorneys transitioning from big law to solo practice. With all of these changes, it is no surprise that the practice of law and the way legal services are offered is changing, as well. One of the more prominent recent developments in legal services is the notion of “unbundled legal services” or “discrete task representation.” As with most new developments in the legal industry, many attorneys are a bit uncertain about unbundled legal services and there are a lot of questions floating around. Just to name a few: What are unbundled legal services? How do they differ from legal document prep services? Who do unbundled services benefit? What are the risks and how can attorneys avoid those risks when offering unbundled services? And, how does an attorney get started if he or she decides to offer these services?
What Are Unbundled Legal Services?
To have any discussion about unbundled legal services, it is important to have a solid understanding of what unbundled legal services are and what they are not. Simply stated, an attorney provides “unbundled” services when he or she performs specific services for a client rather than providing full representation. In other words, an attorney offering unbundled services might appear at one hearing, prepare a legal brief, or negotiate a settlement after the client has prepared the case as a self-represented party or utilized the services of another legal provider.
The next question that usually pops up when discussing unbundled legal services is, “What’s the difference between unbundled services and a legal document prep services, such as Legal Zoom?” Document preparation services do not offer any advice to clients in the form of legal knowledge or professional judgment. In addition, many document preparation services are automated in some aspects, so there might not be anyone to review documents, make sure that the client has chosen the right product for his or her legal needs and ensure that the client did not make any errors when filling out forms. When an attorney provides unbundled legal services, clients are getting more than just a court appearance or a document; they are also getting the benefit of that attorney’s expertise and guidance for each client’s specific legal matter. A legal document prep service might be cheap, but it will generally provide a cookie-cutter approach the legal services, and this can leave a lot of room for error and problems down the road. On the other hand, an attorney who offers unbundled services can educate clients and give them the tools to serve their legal needs.
In addition to the benefits that unbundled services give consumers over choosing to deal with legal matters alone using document services, what are the other benefits of unbundled legal services, and who else benefits? Last year, the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services published An Analysis of Rules that Allow Lawyers to Serve Pro Se Litigants. In this white paper, the ABA noted that pro se litigation is on the rise in many areas of civil law, especially in domestic relations courts. Partly, the reason for this is because many consumers do not feel that they can afford to hire an attorney for full-scale representation. By offering unbundled legal services, attorneys can help bring down costs for consumers, while also providing benefits for attorneys and court staff members. Because pro selitigation is on the rise, many courts complain that much of their time is spent assisting litigants as they try to navigate the legal system without help from attorneys. Unbundled services can lighten this burden on court clerks by bringing down the cost of hiring an attorney and encouraging pro se litigants to seek at least some professional guidance before filing cases or filling out forms. In addition, attorneys who offer these services can unlock a market of customers who are at an income level just below their full-service rates.
What are the risks and how can attorneys avoid those risks when offering unbundled services? Although an attorney may see the potential for expanded business that unbundled services, many worry about ethics rules and malpractice risks. Luckily, at least 41 states have adopted the ABA model rule, or similar provisions, which allow lawyers to unbundle their services and take only part of a case. In addition to the guidelines that attorneys can follow in their state rules, there are a few other ways to minimize risks when providing unbundled legal services: During your first consultation with a new client, you should develop the full circumstances of the representation, not just facts related to the limited representation; explain all of the legal implications of the client’s case; and explain to the client all courses of action that he or she might take, differentiating between the services you would provide under full representation compared to the services you would provide in a limited capacity. After helping the client fully understand all of his or her options, the next important step is to provide the client with a thorough engagement letter that outlines the client’s goals, the tasks the attorney will perform, the tasks the attorney will not perform, the tasks the client will perform, anticipated costs and any risks involved.
How does an attorney get started if he or she is ready to offer unbundled services? Offering unbundled services is as easy as updating your firm’s website or just telling new clients about their options when they visit your office, but that does not mean that consumers will come flocking to you for legal assistance. Because of the existence of document preparation services and other services that purport to offer legal assistance at rock-bottom prices without any guidance from an attorney, it is important to get the word out to consumers that unbundled services are much more than form letters and automatically generated documents. If you are ready to take unbundled services seriously, try speaking to local trade groups; writing articles on the consequences of unguided, DIY legal action; and emphasizing your role as an advocate rather than simply a document-generating machine. By showing that you offer far more than simple document preparation services, consumers will be drawn to unbundled services as a cost-conscience middle ground between full-scale representation and high-risk, unguided self-help.
Kevin Chern is president of Total Attorneys, a leading provider of marketing and practice management services to small law firms, serving thousands of law firms nationwide. Previously he was managing partner of the country’s largest consumer bankruptcy law firm. Under his direction, a staff of 180 employees in 19 states served approximately 450 new clients each week. He is also an author and a contributing writer to several legal blogs. For more info, visit Kevin on the web at www.totalattorneys.com.
© Copyright 2010, American Bar Association.