YourABA: November 2012
YourABA October 2012 Masthead

Offering legal services a la carte

Imagine a coffee shop whose specialty is a hot cup of joe with a side of legal advice. That’s what’s on the menu at Legal Grind in Santa Monica, Calif.

The lawyer who runs the shop “enables individual lawyers to come in and give bits of legal advice by appointment or even by walk-in,” says Richard Granat, who operates a virtual law firm in Baltimore from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “What he’s done here is connected the concept of ‘unbundling’ with a place concept. He has an accessible law library that people can borrow from or take a look at self-help books, or even buy self-help books. Everything that’s delivered through this environment is really a form of unbundled legal service.”

For more information

The ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services has been a leading proponent of unbundling for the past 20 years. The site contains statutes, ethical opinions, state initiatives and other practice guides.

Unbundling is ordering legal services a la carte, says M. Sue Talia, who provides private judging in complex family law matters and is a frequent speaker on unbundled legal services. The lawyer breaks down the tasks and only provides representation to a client pertaining to a portion of his or her legal needs. “The client then accepts responsibility for doing the balance of the work,” Talia says. “We use the term unbundling; another term is limited scope representation or discrete-task representation.”

A panel of experts on the topic presented the ABA CLE “Unbundling in the 21st Century: Growing Your Practice With Limited Scope Representation.” Panelists discussed the benefits of unbundling, services that lend themselves to it and best practices.

The case for unbundling. Talia says that first she wants to set the record straight on a common misconception about unbundling. “This is not a threat to your full-service practice,” she says. “The clients who demand limited scope are currently nobody’s clients, either because they can’t afford full service or increasingly because they refuse to turn complete control of their legal matter over to someone else.”

Unbundling lends itself better
to alternative fee arrangements, such
as fixed-fee billing, instead of just
the billable hour.

Market demand for unbundled services is strong and growing, Talia says. One of the primary reasons is the economic savings. “Consumers understand that when they do some of the legwork themselves or when a product or a service has a do-it-yourself component, that it’s more affordable to them,” she says. “In the current economy, also, many lower to moderate income individuals are more than willing to do the extra work in order to save some money on their legal needs.”

Unbundling also lends itself much better to alternative fee arrangements, such as fixed-fee billing, instead of just the billable hour, says Stephanie Kimbro, director of the North Carolina branch of Burton Law, a virtual and full-service firm. “Clients are very appreciative of that because they know upfront how much they’re going to have to pay for services,” she says, “and you can even do payment plans for them to spread that cost out for those services.”

The more manageable cost of unbundled services helps increase access to the legal system, Granat says. “It also lessens the burden on the court system by having the lawyer involved in the process, so you don’t have pro se litigants representing themselves without any backup or without any legal advice,” he says.

Economic benefits extend to the lawyer, too, Granat says. “You can actually think of unbundled legal services as a marketing strategy for a law firm to build trust with a client because the client can try the law firm’s services without making a full commitment,” he says.

The client also appreciates the expanded choice this approach provides, Kimbro says. “In their personal lives, they see things like Apple iTunes, which essentially unbundles albums and music, so they’re used to the idea of selecting just what they need or want, especially in the online environment,” she says.

In fact, unbundled legal services delivered online are now commonplace because of companies such as LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer, Kimbro says. Internet transactions, she says, offer “flexibility and convenience” if the client isn’t able to come into a physical office.

The service menu. Most people assume that unbundling is limited to transaction-based practices, and the majority of unbundled services are: ghostwriting, pleadings, briefs, orders, and legal forms and documents, Kimbro says. “But there’s also negotiating, making limited appearances, advising on strategy, coaching — even helping them with discovery materials, preparing exhibits,” she says.

Talia says that providing clients with procedural assistance is also valuable. “So they know why they can’t serve their own papers, they know where to go in the clerk’s office, and they know what they have to do in order to actually get their matter on the calendar,” she says.

“The other thing I think is invaluable in civil practice,” she adds, “is the basic demand letter for something like insurance coverage or employment issues. That well-drafted demand letter coming at a time when the client most desperately needs it and probably has the least amount of money to pay for a lawyer can be extremely valuable.”

Kimbro knows a Connecticut lawyer who provides legal coaching packages for self-represented individuals; the coaching, mainly on procedural issues, is done by phone. For the past seven years, Kimbro herself has unbundled basic estate planning for clients. She provides them with the documents and detailed instructions on what to do with them, how to execute them, who to provide copies to and where to store them.

Granat’s own practice offers wills, powers of attorney, living wills and living trusts for a fixed price “that is slightly above what Legal Zoom does.” The difference is that he provides full legal advice.

Best practices. If you’re new to unbundling, one of the first things to consider is what kind of legal service you can unbundle for your type of client, Granat says. “What you really want to do is see if you can draw outlines around a group of services and make it into a project, so that the task itself is a form of boundary setting,” he says. “I like to think of it as productizing my legal service by putting a discrete boundary around it and making sure this is the type of service I can deliver quickly, because I need to do this efficiently in order for me to make the same kind of profit margin that I would on my full-service activities. Therefore, it means I want to be able to do something in volume and do it very efficiently.”

A thorough client intake process and evaluation of the client’s legal needs will reveal whether [unbundling] is
the best choice.

Niches can be profitable. For example, Granat is known for producing qualified domestic relations orders, or QDRO orders. “I now have people who come to me from all over the state of Maryland just to do the QDRO order,” he says. “I may do it a couple times a week, and it’s through the efficiency techniques that I use and the volume that I use that I become known as a specialist, the go-to person, in this case on the Web, who can produce that kind of unbundled service.”

Unbundling, however, may not be right for everyone, and a thorough client intake process and evaluation of the client’s legal needs will reveal whether it’s the best choice, Kimbro says. “You need to analyze very thoroughly the complexity of their legal matter and try to identify any issues that may be hiding behind the scenes that may come up later in the legal process that would affect their case [and] make it inappropriate it unbundle,” she says. “Find out things like how much litigation is going to be involved? Would they be able to handle that on their own? Or it is a more clear-cut case? Find out if they’ve worked with an attorney before they came to you for limited scope assistance. Get the background on their legal needs as well as the current status. Then look at would it be in their best interest in that circumstance if your representation or another lawyer’s representation were complete from start to finish.”

The client’s personality also can dictate whether unbundled services would be a good fit. “Do they take instruction well?” asks Kimbro. “A large component of unbundling is educating the client on what would they get with full-service representation versus unbundled representation, so they understand the risk-benefit analysis of going with unbundled services.”

Clients must also have the ability to follow through with completing documents their lawyers have given them, Kimbro says. “Will they consent to that work?” she asks.

Lawyers will have to spend some time educating their clients. “I will provide the client with some educational content attached to the limited scope agreement, for example, a checklist that might be an exhibit attached to it,” Kimbro says. “So they see a box on one side that says the tasks that they are responsible for and the tasks that I am responsible for. And it’s written in the agreement, but it’s also in a format with no legalese that they can very simple see: This is what I will be doing, and this is what the lawyer will be doing. You want to make sure that you’re avoiding any misunderstanding or false expectations in the future when they might come back to you and say, ‘I thought you were going to handle this part of the process.’”

What the future holds. Granat predicts that fixed-price legal services will become a dominant pattern in the future. He envisions an environment in which solo practices and small firms, instead of having a passive website, will have an interactive virtual law portal where lawyers can interact with their clients online.

Consumers’ expectations, he adds, are being driven by players such as LegalZoom, with fixed-price, unbundled, limited legal services, rather than full legal services. “What we’re dealing with is not just some little experimental fringe thing that’s out there,” he says. “What we’re talking about is something that will actually transform, I believe, almost every kind of law practice. In terms of the mainstream of traditional legal work that affects consumers and small business, unbundled legal services will become a mainstream kind of activity, and those law firms that don’t begin to incorporate these models … will actually be less competitive.”

Forrest (Woody) Mosten, a mediator who has been recognized for his pioneering work in promoting discrete task services, says that 20 years from now, when a client comes in, he or she will ask for unbundling. “Right now, I believe a good lawyer will make it an option," he says, "and I’d like to see actually an ethical duty that before full-service engagement is started, lawyers will say, ‘You know, you have a choice. You can do this in a limited scope way or you can do it in a full-service way. And here’s how the fees differ, here’s how the services differ,’ and let people make a real choice.

“There will be stand-alone offices that just do unbundled work, and there will be stand-alone services that do full service,” Mosten added. “But I think that more and more, consumer choice will be the hallmark.”

This CLE was sponsored by the Law Practice Management Section and the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.

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