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June 17, 2019 Modest Means

Limited Legal Representation to Help the Pro Se Problem in Family Courts

By Samuel Thomas

The latest research shows that percentage of pro se litigants in family courts has increased over the years. In California, for example, it is a staggering 67% of petitioners.  With such an overwhelming number of modest means litigants choosing to represent themselves, how can we as family law attorneys alleviate the problem? The answer may be limited scope legal representation.

Offering limited scope legal services can be an excellent way for family lawyers to attract and help clients who cannot afford their full services.

Offering limited scope legal services can be an excellent way for family lawyers to attract and help clients who cannot afford their full services.

Credit: MoMo Productions via GettyImages

The idea of limited scope legal services is not a new idea, however not many attorneys use this mechanism to offer their services to this group of potential customers. Pro se litigants are choosing not to hire attorneys and choosing affordable online commercial services. As we know, many are inferior to services that a licensed attorney can provide after consulting with the actual person. So how can we as family law attorneys attract these types of clients and make a few bucks doing it using limited scope legal representation?

First, I would suggest that you begin marketing these types of services. Have your website advertise such options. Choose proper wording such as “A la carte legal services.” It is also helpful if you go ahead and list the prices for these services. An example would be: $750 for a mediation in a divorce action.” This information provides the prospective client choices and if it fits their budget for their case.

Next suggestion would be to structure your fee engagement letter to limit the representation to what the client is buying. Example-there should be no doubt in the client’s mind that you are going to ONLY draft the initial pleadings for a set price. The agreement should limit your services to whatever you and the client are actually agreeing to in the limited representation. It is also heavily suggested that you consult your local state bar to ensure your state permits such a limited representation agreement. The last thing you would want is to be summoned into a contested divorce when you have only been paid for the initial pleadings. The good news about this concern is many states have adopted ABA Model Rule 1.2(c) which states a “lawyer may limit the scope of the representation if the limitation is reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.” This is where your fee engagement letter which limits the representation needs to be crystal clear of the terms and signed by both client and attorney should a problem arise.

The benefits to the lawyer in this kind of representation are plenty. The lawyer gets to interact with the client/customer only without having to deal with less than friendly opposing counsel, not having to prepare all weekend for contested hearings on a Monday morning, does not have to keep track of billable hours for the representation, all while creating a new source of income needing no new learned skills.

The benefits to the client/customer in limited legal representation are also plenty. The client: remains in control of their own case, they have saved hundreds of dollars not hiring a lawyer to do everything for their case, they have been pushed down the right path from the beginning, and they have someone they trust to go back to for future advice should the need arise.

With the snippet of benefits listed above on both sides of the table, I would suggest at least experimenting in limited legal representation with a client. Not only will you make a few bucks to pay for your overhead, you will help someone that could not otherwise afford your retainer. The client will appreciate your legal skills in their case, the judge will appreciate the acceptable documents prepared by you rather than the pro se litigant, and you will feel personal satisfaction of helping the underserved client.

For further reading, please check out Forest S. Mosten & Elizabeth Potter Scully’s book, Unbundled Legal Services, available in the ABA Family Law Section’s bookstore. It is a truly wonderful read and expounds on many of the ideas expressed in this article. 

Samuel E. Thomas

Esq., Athens, GA

Law Office of Samuel E. Thomas

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