July 01, 2015 GPSolo | Feature

Tips for Providing Limited-Scope Representation in Family Law Cases

Anne C. Adams

How many times do attorneys meet with potential clients at an initial consultation and the potential client seems interested in obtaining legal services until the attorney starts talking about the initial retainer and attorney fees? Many people consult an attorney about divorces, child custody disputes, and other family law matters because they want help navigating the legal system, but they ultimately decide they cannot afford the legal fees. Limited-scope representation is one possible solution. When an attorney offers limited-scope representation as an alternative to full representation, counsel provides a win-win solution to the potential client and the attorney. Attorneys who offer limited-scope services for family law matters may be able to convert more of these initial consultations into paying clients.

What is the difference between full representation and limited-scope services in family law cases? The client in a limited-scope services case is a self-represented party, also known as an in pro per party; the attorney assists the self-represented party with some of the legal tasks in the case instead of handling all the legal tasks as counsel would in a full-representation case.

Limited-scope representation is sometimes referred to as providing unbundled legal services. The assistance by the attorney can involve preparing pleadings, running child support calculations, assisting with negotiations, giving legal advice, preparing a self-represented party to appear in court, and appearing in court on a limited-scope basis. Some states have court forms that can be used when the lawyer appears in court representing a self-represented party for a specific matter, such as custody and visitation. For example, California has several judicial council forms that can be used in court proceedings when the attorney is appearing on a limited-scope basis.

Advantages of Limited-Scope Representation

What are the advantages of limited-scope representation for the self-represented party? First, the self-represented party will save money if that party performs some of the work instead of asking the attorney to perform all the work. Second, the self-represented party might pay a lower deposit for legal services because the attorney will be providing fewer services. Third, the self-represented party might have greater control and involvement in the case. Fourth, the self-represented party might perceive that she gets more value for her money because she is only paying for the services that she is not willing to perform herself or for services that she believes require an attorney’s expertise. For example, a self-represented party on a limited budget might want an attorney to prepare the legal documents required to obtain a child custody hearing but plan to represent himself at the court hearing. Another self-represented party might already have prepared the documents for a child support hearing but want the lawyer to represent him at the court hearing. Sometimes, a self-represented party only wants to pay to consult with the attorney and ask the attorney to review documents.

What are the advantages of providing limited-scope services for the attorney? First, the attorney can assist a self-represented party and receive compensation based on the attorney’s more limited role in the case instead of losing a potential client who wants his services. Second, a self-represented party may become a client receiving full-representation services when he learns that it is more difficult and time consuming than he expected to represent himself. Third, it may be easier to collect attorney fees because the attorney fees for each case will be smaller. Fourth, in some cases, when counsel is not the attorney of record for the case, the attorney may not need a court order to withdraw from the case or need to ask the client to sign a document substituting counsel out of the case.

The rules for terminating services when the attorney provides limited-scope services will be different in different states. It is important to properly terminate representation of the limited-scope services client so the client is not expecting counsel to perform additional legal services. An attorney should always notify the client in writing that the attorney-client relationship is terminated. This written notice of withdrawing from the case is especially important if there are still additional issues to be resolved in the case. Counsel should consult the state and local court rules regarding the proper way to terminate limited-scope services in her state.

Setting Up Limited-Scope Representations

What steps does an attorney need to take to start accepting limited-scope representation cases? First, the attorney needs to investigate whether or not limited-scope services are permitted in family law cases in the state. Second, if limited-scope services are permitted, then the attorney needs to review any ethics opinions, court rules, and other relevant documents regarding limited-scope representation in the state. Third, the attorney needs to determine which services will be provided on a limited-scope basis, for example, preparing pleadings in the name of the self-represented party, providing advice to the self-represented party for a fee, reviewing documents, assisting with negotiations, discussing strategies, and appearing in court for a specific issue only. Fourth, counsel will need to determine if there are any optional or mandatory court forms used to provide limited-scope services in the state. Some jurisdictions may only require that attorneys disclose their involvement in the case for certain limited-scope tasks. Other states may have broader disclosure requirements. It is very important that attorneys know the court rules and understand the ethics issues in their state regarding disclosure to the court and the opposing party about assisting a party that is self-represented.

The attorney needs to prepare a fee agreement that describes counsel’s obligations to a self-represented party in the case. It is very important that the self-represented party and the attorney agree on which one of them is responsible for certain tasks and document this agreement in writing.

The fee agreement should state how much the attorney is paid, other fees and charges, the method for computing compensation, and when payment is due. The fee agreement should also comply with any applicable court rules, ethics opinions, and codes in the jurisdiction where the attorney practices.

Counsel should carefully interview a potential client for limited-scope representation to ensure that the potential client fully understands the limitations of the attorney’s responsibilities in the case. The client must be willing and able to be responsible for the part of the case that the client is handling without the attorney’s assistance. If an attorney feels uncomfortable working with a particular person on a limited-scope basis, counsel should decline the case or offer full-representation services only.

Counsel needs to fully explain to the potential client the difference between limited-scope representation and full representation. Counsel should discuss whether legal documents sent by the court or the opposing party and their attorney will be mailed to the attorney or to the limited-scope services client. They should discuss who is responsible for responding to legal documents sent to the attorney or the limited-scope services client. Counsel and the limited-scope services client need to discuss who is responsible for keeping track of court deadlines and court hearings. During this discussion, potential clients may inform the attorney that they only want full representation. Many clients are not comfortable with assuming the additional responsibilities involved with limited-scope representation.

What type of potential client is a good candidate for limited-scope services? This individual will usually be very concerned about paying the cost of legal services. However, potential limited-scope clients may simply want to have more control over their case than they would have in a traditional attorney-client relationship. Potential clients should be comfortable presenting their case to the judge and answering any questions from the judge. Potential clients should be willing and able to pay the legal fees for the limited-scope work and handle any legal tasks they assume.

Fee Agreements and Fee Structures

As noted above, counsel should document in the initial fee agreement (or in an addendum or attachment to this agreement) who will handle various aspects of the case so there are no misunderstandings. For example, counsel might agree only to prepare a written response to a request for a court order to change child custody but not handle any court hearings. This agreement must be understood by the attorney and the limited-scope services client and properly documented in writing by both of them. Some attorneys use a checklist to designate who will be responsible for various legal tasks. Other attorneys use an addendum to a fee agreement. It is important to document the charges for each task the attorney performs. If there are any changes to the fee agreement, these changes should be stated in a written document that is signed by both the attorney and the client.

Many attorneys find that the limited-scope services client is more receptive to a flat fee for providing legal services. Many people are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of paying an hourly rate for an unknown number of hours. Many clients have limited funds to pay an attorney, and they want to establish how much it will cost to receive specific legal services.

Attorneys who have not set flat fees previously may want to review some of the firm’s prior hourly billing statements to determine an average range of charges for a specific legal service. For example, an attorney could determine how much clients are typically charged to prepare the initial documents to start a divorce, then the firm could set a flat fee to prepare that set of documents or each individual document. The firm could set a flat fee for a morning or afternoon court hearing and another fee for an all-day hearing. After the flat fee is established, it should be monitored to determine if the flat fee provides sufficient revenue to the firm and is agreeable to the clients. If the flat fee is not working, it can be adjusted. The attorney should also check any court rules and ethics opinions regarding setting legal fees to ensure that the flat fees comply with the state’s requirements.

Sometimes the firm may not want to set a flat fee for a particular matter or preparation of a specific type of document. For example, when attorneys prepare documents relating to requests for court orders for child custody matters, the time it takes to prepare documents for different clients may vary greatly depending on the number of issues raised in the documents. There are different ways to handle this situation. One firm may decide to charge a flat fee based on the number of pages in the pleading and the number of pages of exhibits attached to the pleading. Another firm may decide to charge an hourly rate with a cap so the client knows the maximum that would be charged to prepare the document. A third firm might decide that some documents or matters can only be handled on an hourly billing basis.

Some attorneys may be concerned about clients expecting a discount for limited-scope services. Attorneys typically charge the same fees for limited-scope legal services and full-representation legal services. Many attorneys ask for all their flat fees to be paid at the beginning of the case instead of only asking for a deposit toward legal fees. Other attorneys are willing to offer payment plans. The client saves money with limited-scope services because the attorney is performing fewer legal tasks.

Attorneys should perform the same quality of work for a limited-scope services client that they perform for a full-representation client. Limited-scope representation clients may be a good source of referrals to the attorney because people who pay less money for legal services may be happier with the results they received for their money.

Marketing and Ethics

There are many ways to market limited-scope services. A lawyer can discuss the concept of limited-scope services during the initial consultation if she thinks it is a good alternative for a potential client. The attorney may want to include information about limited-scope services in the office’s written marketing materials. Counsel may want to join an attorney referral service that offers panels for limited-scope services. The lawyer may want to blog about limited-scope services because many consumers are not familiar with the availability of using attorneys on a limited basis. The attorney may want to include information about limited-scope services on the firm’s website. Counsel also may want to promote the availability of limited-scope services through Internet marketing sites.

Attorneys who have never provided limited-scope services may be concerned about ethical issues and court rules in their state, but many states permit limited-scope services for family law cases. An initial resource for researching court rules and ethics opinions can be found on the American Bar Association website (americanbar.org). The Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services has a Pro Se/Unbundling Resource Center (tinyurl.com/7p43uop) that has court rules and ethics opinions from many states. Attorneys can further research limited-scope services through their state bar associations. Some state bar associations offer ethics hotlines.


There are benefits to both self-represented parties and attorneys when attorneys offer limited-scope services in family law cases. An attorney may want to start by accepting a small number of limited-scope representation cases until counsel can refine office policies, procedures, and documents for assisting self-represented parties on a limited-scope basis.

Anne C. Adams

Anne C. Adams is a Certified Family Law Specialist certified by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. She practices in Los Angeles County, California. She is writing a book on limited-scope services.