On July 26, Laurence Tribe, President Obama's Senior Counsel for Access to Justice, told an assembly of state supreme court justices that he had "come face to face with the anxiety and desperation of ordinary citizens, who look to our legal system for their fair share of decent treatment" and then told them what they could do to improve access to the courts. We'll be writing more about Professor Tribe's recommendations in the weeks to come, but we'd like to focus here on his comments on pro bono (free) assistance from lawyers.

Tribe recommended that the courts and bars loosen restrictions on unbundled representation and multi-state practice in order to increase opportunities for pro bono representation. He also suggested that courts reconsider their unauthorized practice restrictions so that court clerks could offer more help to self represented parties.

Unfortunately, pro bono work can't begin to cover the legal needs of the American public. About two million people got divorced last year, half of whom represented themselves. There also were about four million foreclosures and about 1.4 million consumer bankruptcies. That's over 6.4 million people who need legal help in just three areas of law. There are about one million lawyers in the country; however most of them have no background in these or other areas of law where everyday people need the most help. It is simply unrealistic to expect that lawyers could provide free full-service help to the millions who need assistance.

Fortunately, there are other options. Full-service representation is both prohibitively expensive -for pro bono lawyers and for paying clients. However, allowing unbundling for paid services would enable lawyers to offer a wider range of services that would be affordable for clients and make business sense for lawyers. For example, in an uncontested divorce, a client could fill out forms and pay a lawyer to review them. In a small claims case or other self-represented litigation, a client could pay for 30 minutes of a lawyer's time for coaching on how to present her case. Allowing clients to receive service other than in a one-size-fits-all plan-and allowing attorneys to be paid for such service without fear of ethics violations-will expand the availability of legal help far more than pleading for more pro bono hours.

Published in Blog
Sunday, 21 March 2010 10:37

Buy Your Law

In a previous blog post, I discussed how the divorce rate had dropped during the recession in part because people simply couldn't afford the cost of a divorce. Consider one way in which those costs could be brought under control for the average consumer. A recent article in LawyersUSA notes a trend toward "unbundled legal services" -- legal services provided on an "as needed" basis. In the article, Attorney Susan O'Brian stated that a full service divorce usually requires a $4,000 retainer, and depending on the complexity of the case and whether there are custody issues, a divorce can cost between $10,000 and $50,000.

"Unbundled" legal services (sometimes called "limited scope" or "discrete task" representation) are certainly a welcome trend in the legal profession and often do substantially lower the costs associated with a divorce, however, O'Brien did note that she still charges $275 an hour for unbundled services. Even purchased "a la carte," legal services carry a hefty price tag and often one that extends beyond what most people can afford -- reason enough to regard unbundling of legal services as only one potential solution to a much bigger legal crisis. Regardless, if you are seeking legal help, consider asking about unbundled services. Not only will you be encouraging a worthwhile trend in how legal services are provided to consumers, but you may also find you're able to afford services you assumed were beyond your reach.

Published in Blog
Sunday, 12 June 2011 20:00

Weighing in on Unbundling in Wisconsin

We recently sent the Wisconsin Supreme Court our suggestions for how it could best support Limited Scope Representation (or "unbundling"), which is a new form of legal representation that would allow lawyers to advise clients on only selected elements of a legal matter. You can read our comments here.

Published in Blog
Wednesday, 23 March 2011 20:00

Montana Okays à la Carte Legal Services



Unbundling (also called limited scope representation or à la carte legal services) allows a consumer to hire a lawyer to handle a discrete part of a legal matter. For example, a businesswoman might want to draft a contract and have an attorney review it. Also growing in popularity is paying a lawyer to answer a legal question online. The resultant savings to consumers, and increased access to justice, could be significant.

One of the obstacles to unbundling is that some lawyers are concerned that ethics rules define their duty to their client in such a way that they cannot agree to represent them for only part of a matter. Montana recently adopted rules that would facilitate such services by making it clear that clients can consent to limited representation. They also provide protection to consumers and lawyers by requiring them to sign an unbundling agreement. The Montana rules go far toward implementing two elements of Responsive Law's reform agenda: fostering innovation in the legal industry and requiring all engagement agreements to be in writing. (Our complete Client's Bill of Rights is here.)

Clarifying what types of unbundled services lawyers may provide benefit consumers even more. States also need to adopt clearer rules and definitions regarding the unauthorized practice of law, which would allow non-lawyer legal services providers to innovate as well.

We encourage other states to follow Montana's lead in improving access to justice and accountability in the legal system.

You can find a complete analysis of the new rules by Sue Talia, writing on Richard Zorza's blog.

Published in Blog