Coalition Touts Unbundled Legal Services as Fix for Access Gap

by Jennifer Joyner (JJoyner@nwabj.com) 46 views 

Experts say the legal industry is changing, and one way for attorneys to align with consumer demand is to offer the option for clients to receive limited-scope representation.

Also called unbundled legal services, limited-scope representation is where an attorney and client agree that the attorney will handle only part of a legal matter, leaving other parts of the case, including filings and court appearances, in clients’ own hands.

The idea is for legal service consumers to save money by not having to pay for full services.

Sherwood-based civil attorney Brooke Moore, for example, has embraced the practice. She now exclusively handles limited-scope cases through her online business, Arkansas Virtual Lawyer.

Using the Web-based software, MyCase.com, Moore can take on clients from throughout the state. She has worked several cases in Northwest Arkansas, but her biggest client base is still in central Arkansas, she said.

Potential clients, which include individuals, small businesses and nonprofits, can set up a consultation with her on AVL’s website, or by calling its toll-free number.

Once clients are set up in the portal, they have 24/7 access to documents pertaining to their case.

The practice caters to clients seeking convenience in navigating straightforward legal cases, who cannot afford traditional services or who are simply interested in saving money, Moore said.

“I just really saw that there was a growing need for access to legal services for moderate-income individuals or low-income individuals that barely miss the threshold for legal aid or may qualify but not be able to be assisted,” she said.

AVL charges flat fees for services. The average cost ranges between $400 and $500 per case, and AVL offers payment plans.

“My clients appreciate the ability to communicate and be able to access things and not be charged by the minute. If you send me a message, I’m not charging you $150 to answer your email,” Moore said, adding that the fees for full-service representation are appropriate, given the amount of time, energy and resources an attorney uses on the case — also taking into account his or her education and experience. 

“The higher fees are justified, but those kinds of services are not always necessary,” she said.

 

Virtual Legality

Last year, Moore launched AVL out of her traditional practice, which she had started in 2012.

Speaking of her experience in the previous practice, Moore said, “I had a lot of uncontested divorces, and that’s very simple to stream-line and help people out at a lower cost.

“During initial filings, people often assume that their spouse is going to be spiteful and it’s going to be messy, but it usually doesn’t end up that way,” she added.

In those uncontested divorces, the case consists heavily of filing the proper paperwork. And for that, Moore can give clients step-by-step instructions, without taking on the case full-time.

Technically, the individuals are representing themselves.

“Sometimes, people just need a little bit of guidance,” she said, adding that many of her clients previously tried to go at it on their own.

In fact, lack of professional representation or guidance is more widespread than experts say it should be within the state’s legal industry. It’s an issue that certain groups, including the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission in Little Rock, are working to address.

Amy Dunn Johnson is executive director of the AAJC, whose mission is to ensure that Arkansas residents of all financial statuses have access to legal services.

To illustrate the lack of legal representation in some Arkansas courtrooms, she points to a 2011 AAJC study of domestic relations cases, conducted in partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service. The study shows that, among Arkansas’ 50,000 domestic relations cases per year, 95 percent have at least one party who lacks legal representation.

Lack of legal representation is more common among certain civil cases, which do not come with added financial incentives for attorneys (like there are in personal injury cases, for example), other than what their clients pay them to take the case.

The AAJC is taking steps to help foster the use of limited-scope representation as a means to help fill the gap.

“Historically, attorneys have offered representation as an all-or-nothing proposition,” Johnson said.

The AAJC is furthering the cause by partnering with the Arkansas Bar Association on a petition to the Arkansas Supreme Court to amend the Arkansas Rules of Professional Conduct in order to provide more explicit guidance on limited-scope services. The petition was unanimously approved by the Arkansas Bar Association Professional Ethics Committee, the Board of Governors and the House of Delegates, as well as the AAJC. The next step is court approval.

 

Overextended Aid

A lack of legal representation stems, in part, from the fact that the designated legal service entities for low-income individuals are overburdened, Johnson said.

The ABA’s petition to the Supreme Court states that the two civil legal aid providers in Arkansas, the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas — which have a combined staff of about 50 attorneys — receive 30,000 calls each year and at least half of qualified clients are turned away because the legal service provider lacks the resources to assist them.

Meanwhile, 724,000 Arkansans meet the income threshold to receive legal aid, according to the petition.

The proposed rules outlined in the petition are modeled after similar amendments in Alabama and Colorado.

 “[Limited-scope representation] is not a new concept. Arkansas is a little behind,” Johnson said. “Other attorneys have been using this method for two decades. Our legal market is trying to catch up with the current market.”

Johnson said one hurdle for greater implementation of limited-scope services is a lack of knowledge about how it works, among potential clients and also attorneys.

But at the same time, not every firm will feel compelled to work such cases — especially those firms who work mainly with larger clients — and even limited-scope representation proponents concede that it is not right for every case. 

Kristin Pawlik, a partner with Keith, Miller, Butler, Schneider & Pawlik PLLC in Rogers, sees a place for limited-scope representation in some aspects of her practice, but not others.

“I see limited-scope representation fitting in nicely for the modest-income client who needs help in an uncontested change of custody, termination of a guardianship, preparation of a deed, change of name, drafting a Qualified Domestic Relations Order, or filing a petition to adjust a child support order,” she said.

“Conversely, my domestic relations practice is comprised mainly of complex divorce and custody litigation. Those issues generally don’t lend themselves to limited-scope representation because of the density of the subject matter and the intricacies necessary to adequately represent the client and the best interest of the children involved,” Pawlik said. 

 

A Shift in Thinking

Also, offering unbundled legal services would require a change in the overall philosophy many attorneys use in dealing with clients.

“I think, like a lot of attorneys, I have been raised up in the idea that once you take on a client’s case, you take on the whole case. Start to finish. All that it requires,” Pawlik said. “It will be an adjustment for me, and I imagine for many other attorneys, to become comfortable with the idea that we can agree with the client to limit what we do — produce one document, draft a pleading or a proposed agreed order, etc.”

At the same time, Pawlik says she does see a lack of access to legal services for some individuals. She contends that it is not a big problem within the larger cities in Northwest Arkansas, because in those areas, there is a broad range of pricing available for legal services. However, she says that availability dwindles in rural areas.  

Such a lack of access to services needs to be addressed, Pawlik said, and she believes it’s the obligation of legal professionals to do so, wherever possible.

So is limited-scope representation the answer?

“I think it is one piece of the puzzle,” Pawlik said. “It will certainly create new opportunities for folks to access legal services, and my hope is that it increases the number of people who actually do access legal services.”

Johnson sites the rise of the Internet as a cause for fewer clients seeking legal help.

“Now, the lay public has access to all sorts of information,” she said. “There’s no longer that imbalance of expertise.”

Moore agrees the legal market is changing, and in the void of response from the legal industry, businesses like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, which help individuals prepare legal documents, have emerged. But she said those entities, while they use attorneys on a contract basis, are no substitute for having a legal advocate to give advice and guide a client through the process.

“There’s a crisis right now in the legal profession. Legal consumers are demanding it change. It’s only a matter of time before the legal profession has to catch up and answer that call.”  

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