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Data suggests there is a vast untapped legal market. Over 70 percent of family and civil cases have at least one self-represented party, with financial reasons being one of the strongest motivating factors. According to a 2011 public opinion poll by the American Bar Association, while 70 percent of people surveyed were initially unfamiliar with unbundling, two-thirds were interested in talking with a lawyer after they learned about it.
There are growing opportunities to launch an unbundled practice. Additionally, there are new legal services providers coming into this space. Over the past few years, states have begun creating new categories of providers: allied legal professionals who are authorized to provide limited legal advice and services across certain case types, often including family law. These allied legal professionals are by their very nature providing unbundled legal services.
What follows are some considerations for steps to take in establishing an unbundled practice.
Launching an Unbundled Practice:
- In terms of defining the scope of an unbundled practice, begin by considering the whole-picture perspective of serving a client, parsing out from there the tasks that are particularly high-impact for potential clients or aligned with personal specializations and training.
- In family law, for example, consider every legal service provided throughout the life of a divorce case, and then pull from that list the most important or difficult services you feel would most benefit a client if an attorney handled—legal advice, document preparation such as the financial declaration, limited court appearances, etc.
- Decide at the outset what, if any, services will not be offered to unbundled clients, such as formally entering an appearance in a case or representing a client at court hearings.
- Case handling can be broken down into phases or chunks from which determinations can be made as to whether the attorney or the client will handle each task.
- Develop processes for screening client and case suitability for an unbundled arrangement.
- Factors to consider include case type, complexity of issues, hearing/trial requirements, opposing party representation status, etc.
- Client characteristics are also very important in determining suitability: for example, the presence of domestic violence or other significant power imbalance that would affect a client’s ability to perform their tasks under the agreement, client sophistication to understand the limitations of the unbundling agreement and perform their role under that agreement, etc.
- Understand how to convert an unbundled arrangement into a broader scope arrangement—and what documentation is necessary to do so.
- Develop a repository of appropriate forms to reference, including screening checklists, special retainer agreements, form documents, and other materials that can streamline the process.
Pricing Unbundled Services:
- It is beneficial to assign a price to each unbundled task, particularly since price transparency is important to potential clients who are seeking affordable legal services.
The Chicago Bar Foundation Pricing Toolkit provides advice on value-based pricing and is a good resource for attorneys unsure about how much to charge for specific tasks. Other firms’ and organizations’ unbundled pricing models can also be instructive to an attorney setting prices to services.
AltFee supplies law firms with a systemized approach to pricing and provides analysis of internal data trends in order to scope and price unbundled and other non-hourly services without having to charge by the hour. The software also equips attorneys to collaborate with mentors and colleagues for better legal pricing.
- With unbundled services, it is easy to be scalable and flexible:
- A legal services provider can provide flat fees for discrete tasks or chunks of a case and still charge hourly rates for other tasks, such as for trial representation.
- Tasks can be offered à la carte, so the client can pick and choose which services they want help with based on their needs and financial situation.
- Unbundled practitioners can also experiment with subscription models, with the client paying monthly depending on the level of attorney involvement and services rendered.
Integrating Technology into an Unbundled Practice:
- Integration of technology into an unbundled law practice only makes sense if the resulting products and services solve an existing problem, whether for the provider or the consumer.
- The most widely used legal technologies are well-known tools like Microsoft Word, Gmail, Zoom, MailChimp, WordPress, Adobe, etc. While simple, they can radically streamline an unbundled practice. For example:
- Adobe allows users to easily create fillable forms, enable fields for e-signatures, and add a submit button so clients can easily send forms back once they are done. These are just a few of the tools Adobe provides that attorneys can use to simplify creating and using forms with clients.
- WordPress can help attorneys understand what topics and services people are most interested in by gathering statistics about the search engine keywords used to find the webpage and the links they click on when on the webpage. Additionally, WordPress can be used to automatically share content from a website to social media, such as blog posts.
- Assess the feasibility of building an unbundled product alongside the value expected from the product. This assessment exists along a spectrum—the more feasible the build, the less value the product must return.
- Small, repetitive tasks are often low-hanging fruit for productization in an unbundled practice. The following questions can help identify these opportunities:
- What standard information are you passing along to every client?
- What client questions do you find yourself answering repeatedly?
- What repeat issues are you trying to fix?
- Automating forms is an easy, low-cost way to attract prospective clients or otherwise assist consumers without an attorney.
Lester Law offers a variety of options for navigating a divorce or establishing a custody plan. Consumers can receive help with a specific step in the process, from drafting a document to having representation at a hearing. Consumers can also navigate the entire process without an attorney through the firm’s LawGuides service: a step-by-step guide for starting and completing a divorce in Colorado.
Hello Divorce is an online platform that helps people manage and complete their divorce in a number of states. It integrates automated forms with legal information, wellness support, strategy, and unbundled legal coaching to empower clients to navigate the divorce process on their terms. Clients have the ability to choose between four different plans, one of which is completely Do-It-Yourself. The other three plans involve differing levels of unbundled attorney involvement, from proofreading and filing to mediation services.
- In developing an unbundled product, it can be useful to identify the first step that can be achieved in a minimal amount of time to launch something that adds value. From that point, consumer feedback can be gathered and the tool improved.
- The proliferation of no-code tools (for example, Afterpattern) is empowering non-technical providers to create their own software and apps, and these can be very helpful to unbundled practitioners.
Marketing Unbundled Services:
- The term “unbundled legal services” means little to a lay person, so using phrases in ad copy like “customized client services” can catch consumer attention in a clear and direct way.
- Unbundled legal services providers can provide the consumer with information about the service delivery model, so clients can educate themselves about how this model is different from full-service representation.
IAALS and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts developed a Consumer Guide to unbundling that explains what unbundled legal services are, what an unbundled lawyer does, and how it works in a legal process.
- Unbundled practitioners can partner with local and state bar associations to be included in lists of providers that are willing to provide limited scope services.
Lawyers and allied legal professionals who are interested in offering limited scope representation are sometimes reluctant to proceed due to a concern over potential ethics violations. As is always the case, an unbundled lawyer must consult and comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct. The focus with this practice model is centered on how to effectively limit the scope of representation and document the parameters of the representation.
Limitations on Scope & Informed Consent
- Rule 1.2(c) authorizes an attorney to limit the scope of the representation if the “limitation is reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.”
- This determination goes beyond competency to take on the matter. An unbundled practitioner should consider the client’s capabilities—factors like tech competence, prior experience with the legal system, temperament (if negotiating with the other party), language capability, etc.
Communication & Documentation
- Every service that an attorney plans to complete for the client must be discussed in detail and memorialized in writing.
- Services that the attorney will not provide should also be discussed and memorialized in writing. This is vital because while it is permissible to limit scope, an attorney cannot limit their advice. Part of this advice includes explaining to a client the ramifications of not completing a task over which the client has responsibility.
- Another key piece of information that must be thoroughly explained is the point at which the lawyer’s work will be considered complete.
- An attorney is obligated under Rule 1.4 to keep the client reasonably informed about the progress of the work throughout the representation. This includes when the attorney has finished the work detailed in the agreement. It is often wise to confirm this through a disengagement letter or some other type of documentation.
- To avoid miscommunication and liability issues that may arise, it is important for unbundled practitioners to have established internal policies for documentation—potentially even practices that go beyond the jurisdiction’s professional conduct rules.
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