Limited scope representation helps lawyers expand practice

April 2015 | Around the ABA

Limited scope representation, or “unbundling” legal services, is an alternative to the traditional full-service model where an attorney can limit the attorney-client relationship to a specific task such as document assistance or procedural advice, or for such things as custody or pension issues in family law.

Limited scope is not for every lawyer, nor for every client, nor for every legal issue. But it has proven to be cost-effective for the client, profitable for the attorney and transparent to the courts.

M. Sue Talia, a certified family law specialist and private family law judge in Danville, Calif., is a national expert and advocate for limited scope representation. She was the featured speaker for the ABA-sponsored webinar, “Less is More: Unbundling Legal Services and Expanding Your Practice Using Limited Scope Representation,” held on Feb. 17.

“Right now there is an overwhelming demand for legal services in the general public and a limited number of attorneys who are available to assist them,” Talia said. “But here is the anomaly:  A lot of lawyers are having difficulty finding clients and it’s because they have to come up with different ways in which to offer their legal services to their clients.”

Limited scope representation could be the answer. Because of the Internet and technology, and to some degree economics, Talia said people don’t feel the need any longer for full-service representation for many of their legal issues.

“This is very much a consumer-driven movement,” she said. “People are used to going on the web for information and solving their own problems to the extent that they can and there is a huge population of the public who are no longer interested in paying lawyers to be gatekeepers to a process that they think they should have access to.”

Talia listed the national trends that have helped spur this demand for limited scope representation. They include:

  • Pressure on the courts due to cuts in funding and staffing
  • Impact of the Internet and technology
  • The changing nature of law practice
  • Changing client expectations
  • Changing attorney expectations and life choices
  • Alternative billing models
  • New delivery models
  • New ways of marketing that have increased competition
  • The commoditization of legal services

According to Talia, there is a misunderstanding about what limited scope representation is and isn’t. It isn’t limited liability, it isn’t a second-class practice, it isn’t unethical and it isn’t just for poor people. And it isn’t good for every case, every issue or every client. On the other hand, limited scope representation is:

  • Quality practice of law — “You owe your clients the same duties that you would for any full-service client and that includes competence, confidentially and loyalty,” Talia said.
  • An attorney-client relationship — “The standard of care for limited scope is exactly the same for a particular task as it is for the standard of care for full service.’’
  • Ethical
  • Safe
  • A profit center — “I am told by many lawyers, particularly solo and small firms, that if it had not been for limited scope they doubt they would have been able to keep their doors open during the worst of 2009 and 2010 when people simply could not afford full-service representation,” Talia said. “And in good times, limited scope is a profit center.”

There are few limitations to limited scope representation when it comes to the areas of law in which services can be offered. Some common areas of practice Talia cited are:

  • Family law
  • Consumer law
  • Landlord/tenant
  • Government benefits/housing
  • Special needs advocacy
  • Homeowner association

Services must be tailored to each case and to each client. At one end of a continuum are services such as simple advice and counsel.  At the center of the continuum are legal services that are more than advice and counsel but less than going to court.  “By far, about 80 to 90 percent of the kinds of limited scope services that you will be approached about fall into this middle category,” Talia said. “It involves drafting documents, offering procedural advice, scripting questions, doing research, assembling documents, figuring out what evidence a client needs and how to get it, coaching how to attend a hearing but not actually going to court yourself.”

At the opposite end of the continuum are cases where a lawyer will be required to attend a hearing or some other more formal court proceeding. “This is what most people think about when they think of limited scope representation,’’ Talia said, “but in fact it is a very small percentage of the things you will be required to do.”

There are four basic ethical rules regarding limited scope representation. “They are so basic that I call them no-brainers,” Talia said. The rules are:

  • Limitations must be informed and in writing
  • Limitations must be reasonable under the circumstances
  • Changes in scope must be documented
  • Clients must be advised on related issues even if they don’t ask

The specific rules 1.2 (c) and 6.5 can be found in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and a state-by-state look at what the rules are can be found at the ABA Unbundling Resource Center.

Talia said client selection is important and reiterated that limited scope is not for every client. “Whenever there is doubt about a potential client, just say no,” she said. “This is not about sticking your neck out or taking unreasonable risk. It’s about tapping into a pool of clients who are currently nobody’s client and who would eagerly love to pay you for your time.”

Talia offers young lawyers at no cost her Risk Management Materials (including best practices, client handouts, office forms, checklists, sample client letters, four different kinds of fee agreements), which can be found online at the Practicing Law Institute under the heading, Expanding Your Practice Using Limited Scope Representation.

The program was jointly sponsored by the ABA Center for Professional Development, the standing committees on Delivery of Legal Services and Group and Prepaid Legal Services, Law Practice Division, Section of Dispute Resolution, Section of Family Law, Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division and the Young Lawyers Division.