Why Unbundled or A La Carte Legal Services Just Make Sense

At my http://www.advantageadvocates.com web site, I market my contract legal services, primarily comprised of research and writing, to other attorneys. My sense is that an affordable, timely alternative to the late night cramming in of a research and writing session in advance of a tight litigation deadline necessitated by an all-too-busy practice is a welcome product.

Occasionally, I have been contacted by potential clients who are non-lawyers looking for per diem or piecemeal legal services for a specific task. I am not entirely surprised by this trend. Savvy lay people can find a wealth of legal information on the Internet. While some legal matters can effectively be performed by a non-lawyer representing himself or herself on a pro se basis, there remain certain tasks that are best left to a lawyer.  With legal fees heading in the same direction as and on a similar trajectory to oil prices, the idea of parsing out individual tasks to a lawyer on an “a la carte” basis, rather than via traditional retention for an entire legal matter, makes loads of sense.

Today I saw an article in the ABA Journal with the title “Are Lawyers Becoming Luxury Goods?” With the increasing expense, potential clients may not make retention of a lawyer a priority. The ABA article focuses on trends in the Canadian family court, but the concerns ring true in the U.S. system as well

The option of “unbundled” or “a la carte” legal services is not entirely new. This article from Arizona attorney Debbie Weecks concerning the whys and hows of unbundled legal services is from 2002. The ABA maintains a pro se / unbundling resource center here. At http://www.unbundledlaw.org, a national survey of ethical opinions as of November, 2003 regarding “discrete task lawyering” is maintained here. The ABA has added a model rule to its Code of Professional Conduct concerning unbundling as follows:

Model Rule 1.2(c) states that ”[a] lawyer may limit the objectives of the representation if the client consents after consultation.” According to the comment, the scope of services may be limited by agreement with the client or by the terms under which the lawyer’s services are made available to the client, but the representation must nevertheless meet the threshold of competence required by Rule 1.1.

In line with the concerns raised in today’s ABA Journal article about us lawyers becoming luxury items, the Massachusetts courts have recognized the vital need for affordable representation in family and probate courts. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Court, Family and Probate Court Department, has implemented a “Limited Assistance Representation Pilot Project” permitting legal assistance to litigants on an unbundled, “pro se”, “discrete task, or “whatever-you-prefer-to-call-it” basis. Interestingly, John Dugan, Esq. and Edward Notis-McConarty, Esq., two of the attorneys credited with much of the work developing and implementing the Project, were very recently honored by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court with the 2008 Adams Pro Bono Publico Awards for outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services.

So, while it is definitely not good news for lawyers that we are pricing ourselves out of the average client market, rest assured that novel and affordable ways of packaging and presenting legal services are making themselves known and may well become the legal wave of the future.

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