When was the last time you bought an entire album of music from a single artist? Most of us create playlists with tracks purchased on Apple iTunes from multiple artists and albums. We create exactly what we want to jive with our moods and circumstances. Freedom of choice is important to us as consumers, and the convenience of the Internet has only made this trend more pervasive.
The shift in consumer culture has affected the legal profession as much as any industry. Consumers are looking for ways to pick and choose legal assistance the same way they address their other purchases. They want choice, free information, fixed prices and a more hands-on approach to meeting their own needs. In the legal services marketplace, DIY legal services are more and more in demand—just look at the growth of online legal services companies such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.
As consumers ourselves, we understand the appeal of the trend. As lawyers looking to grow our practices, though, how do we meet this need for legal services while maintaining high-quality standards for legal work and complying with our rules of professional conduct? We integrate “unbundled legal services” into our law practices.
Unbundling Legal Services 101
Unbundling in the legal profession is nothing new. Also called “limited scope representation,” “disaggregated legal services” or “a la carte” legal services, unbundling is practiced by lawyers in all firm sizes—whether or not they call it by one of these names. Unbundling occurs when the lawyer takes a client’s legal need and breaks it down into separate components. The lawyer agrees to provide the client with only certain portions of legal work and the client is responsible for the rest. Forms of unbundling tend to include more transactions-based legal work, such as legal document drafting or reviewing contracts, but it may also be integrated into litigation-based practices in the form of limited appearances, coaching and strategy sessions, or discovery work. Collaborative law and alternative or online dispute resolution services may also be unbundled for clients.
ABA Model Rule 1.2(c) allows for limited scope representation if it is “reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.” Forty-one states have adopted this rule, some verbatim and others with modifications. Many states have rules or ethics opinions regarding the practice of “ghostwriting” and limited appearances, forms of unbundling that are popular with pro se litigants. Before unbundling, check with your state’s rules and ethics opinions.
There are other best practices for avoiding malpractice when unbundling. Any lawyer unbundling must have the client sign a limited scope engagement agreement that clearly defines the scope of representation. Checklists of the client’s responsibilities and deadlines as well as general education about their legal matter are important to provide along with the agreement.
If you wish to unbundle, set up procedures for unbundling specific practice area services ahead of accepting a client for unbundling. Clients must be informed of the difference between full service and limited scope as part of the process, so they may make educated decisions about their choice in legal services. However, it is the lawyer’s responsibility to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether a legal need may be unbundled or if it requires full-service representation. For example, it may not be appropriate to unbundle in certain practice areas, such as criminal defense, where the client’s interests would best be served with ongoing representation.
To tap into this legal marketplace for unbundling, many lawyers are finding ways to deliver unbundled services online through a virtual law office. Others are listing these services a la carte on their websites and will handle the unbundled services in-person at their office. Whether delivered online or in a traditional law office setting, unbundling provides us with a way of meeting the public’s need for better choice and control. It may also serve as a competitive marketing strategy for law firms wanting to get an edge in the existing legal marketplace where consumers are seeking DIY, unbundled solutions to just about everything. Lawyers who figure out how to balance unbundling with full-service offerings will have an advantage. Stop selling them eight-tracks when they only need a single.
Stephanie Kimbro, MA, JD, is the author of the new book Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self-Help Client as well as Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online.