This week, we caught up with Stephanie Kimbro, an attorney and well-known author and expert on virtual law offices and unbundled legal services, among other things. She is the author of “Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online” and “Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self-Help Client.” (You can enter our latest giveaway to win the latter book here.)
Today, she answered our questions regarding the fundamentals of delivering unbundled legal services, in addition to the ethical issues that lawyers should be aware of prior to offering limited scope legal services.
What does “unbundled legal services” mean?
“Unbundled legal services” means that a law firm breaks down a legal matter or a client’s legal needs into components. The attorney tells the client that as your lawyer I’ll handle certain parts of your legal matter and you are responsible for the other parts fo the matter. So with an unbundled legal services agreement you must define very clearly the responsibilities of both lawyer and client.
What are some of the benefits of delivering legal services this way?
For lawyers, it provides a chance to offer different types of services–perhaps a larger variety than full representation would since there are clients that that don’t necessarily want full legal representation and would instead prefer that a law firm handle only certain aspects of a case. Keep in mind that these potential clients aren’t limited to just low income clients. In fact, some law firms actually seek out unbundled legal services since doing so allows them to outsource some aspects of representation. So, for example solos and small firms can unbundle for other law firms, such as for in house counsel. Of course, unbundling isn’t limited to transactional law matters and and is possible for collaborative law, negotiations strategy, counseling, coaching, ghost writing, and even limited appearances. Another benefit for lawyers document automation tools make it easy for the lawyer to offer legal forms and documents as an unbundled service. Unbundled legal services are beneficial for clients as well since it gives them more control over their legal needs. Usually unbundled services are more affordable and oftentimes are more convenient because online technology makes it possible for the services to be provided more quickly and efficiently.
What are some drawbacks of unbundled legal services?
If the lawyer does not educate the client about the difference between full services and unbundled, then the client receiving unbundled services may not clearly understand how much work they will be responsible or that they would be better off having an attorney handle even the footwork in their matter. Second, if the lawyer does not thoroughly vet out the legal need of the client ahead of time in the intake process, it is possible that there will be extraneous circumstances that will come up to make the work more appropriate for full service representation than unbundled.
What are the top ethical issues to be aware of?
Lawyers need to clearly define the scope of the representation and ensure that the client understands exactly what they will be responsible for. They need to be aware of their state’s rules regarding ghostwriting and limited appearances. Most states allow for unbundling but several have different positions on whether they will allow these two specific practices and what is required.
What practice areas are most amenable to unbundled legal services?
Transactions based practices are the easiest to unbundle. Right now we are seeing an increase in unbundling of IP work (trademark, copyright, patent) and immigration law because they are federal. Business law, family law and estate planning are still the biggest areas for unbundling. Most lawyers are adding unbundling to their list of services in addition to full service at their firm rather than firms providing only limited scope services.
Who shouldn’t consider it?
The most obvious examples are criminal defense lawyers or those who handle complex child custody cases, since representation has to be continuous and ongoing and and thus to unbundle legal services for these types of matters would be unethical.
What trends to you foresee in the future for unbundled legal services?
Unbundling is going to increase for two reasons: 1) it lends itself to more affordable fixed pricing and convenient delivery and 2) almost all of these many legal tech startups that are cropping up involve the practice of unbundling either by providing it themselves through their tech platforms with expert systems or doc automation or by the lawyers who participate in their branded networks to deliver unbundled services in the form of guidance, advice, strategy, review, drafting, etc.
Are virtual law firms particularly well-suited for delivering unbundled legal services?
Virtual firms are well-suited to deliver unbundled services because most individuals seeking limited scope services are going online to look for them. From a marketing standpoint, it’s easier to market unbundled services if you have a virtual firm. However, traditional law firms are just as equally capable of delivering unbundled services and many have done so for years but just don’t call it that. They just deliver the services in-person.
What are the best practices for delivering legal services in this way?
The creation of the limited scope engagement agreement is the most critical best practice. The lawyer should have this in place as well as educational handouts and checklists that will guide the client through the process of unbundling as well as through what they will be responsible for completing on their own.
Lawyers also have to have a thorough client intake process that asks the best questions to determine whether it is appropriate to unbundle for a client or whether they need full service assistance. The lawyer should also provide a termination letter at the end of the limited representation that reminds the client about the scope of the services and that the remainder of the work is their own responsibility, including handouts and checklists that will guide the client through the process of unbundling as well as through what they will be responsible for completing on their own.
Even the legal services community who for years has called for only full service representation for all is now starting to promote unbundling as one of the major ways we can improve access to justice in our country. This is a significant shift.
The ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services is also asking the ABA House of Delegates to pass a resolution advancing limited scope representation and it has the support of several ABA entities as discussed here
For more information on unbundled legal services, you can download Steph Kimbro’s free ebook here
or for a more detailed analysis of the issues, you can buy her recently published ABA book on unbundled legal services.