June 13, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver
“Mr. Beaver, I would like to hire a lawyer to handle just a part of my divorce case, but when I call around town, not one lawyer has agreed to help me that way. They all want to take the entire case or have nothing to do with it.
“I want to pay the lawyer’s normal hourly rate — I just need some guidance. With so much self-help legal material available, I am confident in my ability to handle the divorce myself. Isn’t there some way to hire an attorney to do certain things for me, and I can take care of the rest? Thanks, Terry.”
Yes, and it’s called Limited Scope Representation
There are indeed some lawyers who will do just what Terry is asking, for a fee, guide clients through a part of the case. It’s known as “Limited Scope Representation,” “Discrete Task Representation” or “Unbundling of Legal Services,” and “has become much more popular over the past 10 years,” according to Oklahoma City, Okla., attorney Ryan Duffy.
His practice includes general business matters, tax, estate planning and he also is a lecturer for the National Business Institute which provides continuing legal education to America’s lawyers.
“By 2002,” Duffy points out, “across America, courthouses were flooded with parties representing themselves — primarily in divorce cases. As most didn’t know what they were doing, an enormous amount of judicial time was taken up trying to help prevent these people from harming themselves, legally speaking.
“Many could not afford to retain an attorney for the entire case, but they could pay something for limited help, and then finish the case themselves. But lawyers were not allowed to do that; it was take the entire case or do nothing.
“Gradually, courts and State Bar Associations recognized the need to allow an attorney to only handle part of a case — if it’s the right case and the right client.”
Where Limited Scope Representation can work — Why judges like it
“A good example would be a straight-forward, not overly complicated divorce. Instead of taking the case from start to finish, a lawyer could be hired only to prepare the forms and other court documents, but the actual filing and court appearances would be entirely in the client’s hands. Other common examples which Duffy listed include:
- Coaching in how to present your case in court, and help with the preparation of the evidence you will introduce.
- Preparation of a lawsuit for your personal injury case which you could file in the event that so much time had elapsed that the statute of limitations was about to expire. The lawyer would be paid strictly for time to prepare the suit, but not on a percentage basis when you settled the case.
- Consulting an attorney about the settlement value of your personal injury case and negotiation advice.
- A customer has a large outstanding bill but you do not want to give up half of anything collected by hiring a collection attorney. You pay a lawyer for the limited purpose of preparing a lawsuit which you’ll file and handle on your own if necessary.
We wondered if judges have reacted well to this new form of the attorney-client relationship.
“Courts generally approve of Limited Scope Representation,” Duffy points out, “because they want to see people getting as much legal assistance as possible, to learn and protect their rights. It is a matter of practicality, as more and more people are representing themselves, guidance from an attorney can prevent a real injustice, if the client is able to competently handle the mater,” Duffy stresses.
Why it’s not for everyone – Many lawyers refuse when asked
You and the Law spoke with established law firms across the country, finding very few managing partners who had even heard of Limited Scope Representation, and when it was explained, we could just about see them shaking their heads in disbelief.
“Our job is to help clients, not hurt them,” “Laura,” a partner in a highly regarded Central Valley law firm stated, “The risk of a client doing something wrong is huge if a lawyer only handles part of most legal matters.
“Law is more than just filling out forms — you need to know what to do next and how to keep out of the quicksand. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and all the information online or from self-help law publications is no replacement for representation by a skilled attorney,” she maintains.
On advice websites for young lawyers, Limited Scope Representation is often described as “A way for attorneys who are just starting out and need cash flow.”
We rest our case.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.