Is ‘Unbundling’ in Your Future? It Better Be or You May Have No Future!

Time waits for no solo to get his or her act together.  And this economy and today’s D-I-Y consumers will steamroll over anyone who doesn’t give them what they need at the price they can afford.  The internet has forever changed the way we do business by providing quality research and choice at the tip of our keyboard-savvy fingers.  And either you’re with them or against them.  Don’t give them what they want and need and you become a distant link in their browser history.  It’s that abrupt and that cold.

In the world of everyday ‘average Joe’ practice areas, consumers are being forced financially to take more ownership in the resolution of their legal problems.  Egged on further by the internet and a judicial system supplying more and more information (by necessity) on how to handle matters pro se, your potential clients are turning to you with a powerful request – one upon which your livelihood depends;  give me what I want at a price I can afford.  What I want is help on the matters I can’t figure out myself and I’ll pay you a reasonable rate for this.

Solution: Unbundled legal services.

Are you considering ‘unbundling’ your services as an option?  Do you know how?

It is essential that we promote other efforts to close the “justice gap.”One such effort involves the “unbundling” of legal services. Forty-one states, including California and New Hampshire, have adopted a model rule drafted by the American Bar Association, or similar provisions, which allow lawyers to unbundle their services and take only part of a case, a cost-saving practice known as “limited-scope representation” that, with proper ethical safeguards, is responsive to new realities.

While there are have been well-known champions of unbundling, (we have two faculty, Richard Granat and Stephanie Kimbro,  teaching how to unbundle your practices at Solo Practice University)  now more and more lawyers are appearing on the digital landscape and their business models are very intriguing.

Meet Susan Wakefield of Connecticut Legal Coaching:

Susan Wakefield, a family lawyer of over 22 years, has formed Connecticut Legal Coaching, LLC, a legal service specifically designed to support the staggering number of individuals throughout the family courts in Connecticut who are faced with the daunting task of self-representation in their divorce, custody, or post-divorce matter. Legal Coaching, with its unique pay-as-you go and “A La Carte” structure, makes quality legal services accessible to all individuals so they can acquire the knowledge and tools needed to navigate through the system on their own. At Connecticut Legal Coaching, self-representation does not have to mean being alone. Individuals throughout the state now have a place to turn for advice and guidance in their family law matter and where they become empowered by understanding the process and acquiring the skills necessary to represent themselves effectively and with confidence. To get started with Legal Coaching, you can take advantage of our special $99 package that includes:

• 30 minutes of Legal Coaching that can be used at any stage throughout your family law process. For your convenience, the time can be used via phone, e-mail or in-person.

• A divorce packet that contains a step-by-step guide to starting your family law action, steps to take before commencing an action for divorce, an outline of court dates, conferences and their meanings, a list of the documents needed for your final divorce hearing, and all the court forms you will need to file throughout your divorce action.

• Also included is an outline of tips specifically designed for the self-represented.

While much is interesting about this business model, what strikes me is she is showcasing 80% of what is already available to consumers on the internet and repackaging it as a value add.  She is successfully marketing to these clients her real value-proposition – 22 years in the family courts.  She is charging for her 22 years of knowledge, experience, and guidance which no pre-printed form or harried clerk can (or is permitted to) provide a pro se litigant.

By repackaging instructions and bundling with a 30 minute consultation via e-mail, phone or in person she is accommodating need as well as fielding out those who may in fact want greater representation and can afford it.  Additionally, she showcases this type of consultation as a ‘good investment.’  Kudos, Attorney Wakefield.

Now meet Billie Tarascio and her firm Tarascio & Del Vecchio. She is providing unbundled legal services at $99 per hour.

Having an attorney doesn’t have to be expensive! We are a Company dedicated to increasing Access to Justice through the promotion of low-cost limited scope legal services. We have literally thrown out business as usual to bring you affordable legal services. Our firm offers licensed Arizona Attorneys who can help with all areas of family law, estate planning, civil litigation, real estate disputes, criminal law, immigration and more.

Our model of business keeps our costs low and eliminates administrative fees so we can pass the savings along to you. We never charge a retainer and everything is pay-as-you go. This way, you aren’t paying for the clients who don’t pay their bills!

Here is the rationale behind their business model supported by (outdated) statistics:

According to National Center on State Courts in 1991-92, 71% of domestic relations (family law) cases had at least one unrepresented party.  In 18% both parties were pro se litigants. Both here in Arizona and around the country, the number of people choosing to represent themselves is on the rise.

WHY? According to 1996 report on pro se by University of Maryland Law School:

  • 57% of self representing litigants said they could not afford it
  • 21% said they believed their case was simple and they didn’t need an attorney
  • 45% of self-representing litigants believe that “Lawyers are more concerned with their own self promotion than their clients best interest.”

I think it’s fair to say given this economy the number of pro se (or pro per) litigants is significantly higher. While Tarascio and DelVecchio have a slightly different business model and cover significantly more practice areas than Wakefield, the recognition of the increasing number of pro se litigants and the viability of building a business model for them is shared.

I know unequivocally this is the future of the legal profession for a significant majority of private practitioners. The only question remaining is how long will it take you to participate on some level.

If you are already unbundling, please do share!

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11 comments on “Is ‘Unbundling’ in Your Future? It Better Be or You May Have No Future!

  • I have watched unbundled services in regards to estate planning firms somewhat closely lately. As I understand it, no firm is able to sustain a full-time practice based on the unbundled, online model as of yet. Additionally, the comparatively lower average age level of tech-savvy individuals leads to fewer people who will even be concerned with estate planning.

    However, once families start becoming more and more familiar with the agonizing probate process, they will be looking for inexpensive options. I think you articulately state how firms will need to have unbundled services in place once folks start to become more aware of them. Hopefully, the combination of lower cost and law firm expertise will attract DIY-ers to see lawyers as their partners in their efforts.

    Scott

    • Scott, welcome to our blog! I don’t disagree with you. I haven’t spoken with either one of the lawyers I referenced in this post but I plan to at some point to understand a little more about how their business model is working – the savvy-ness of their clients and the ages. Plus, each one has a unique background and I’m curious if someone going into this with a 22 year history of on-the-ground client generation has a better chance at success of someone who is just starting out does. I’ll keep everyone posted as I learn more.

      That being said, whenever a new model is introduced it does take time for those around to accept and then adopt themselves. But the time is now because technology and the economy are making it the perfect time for massive change.

  • Once again, you’ve inspired me! In the same vein re adapting to new realities, I just wrote about a new work environment that has me really excited called The Hub.

    Without going completely off topic, The Hub not only provides collaborative workplaces, but promotes “members” by helping them network, provides some free legal advice to new entrepreneurs, and has created venture capital,”Hub Cap”, for businesses. (I believe the one in San Francisco is in partnership with KIVA.)

    The bottom line is that if we stopped and thought about it, these very difficult times having truly created new opportunities if we are open to them just as the attorneys you write about in your posting.

    There are more than 25 global locations of The Hub. Here is a link to the one in SF:
    http://bayarea.the-hub.net/public/ for anyone that is interested. Can you tell I am excited about this?

  • Good points, Susan. Obviously, unbundling is something that I strongly believe in as having benefits for us as professionals and for the public in general.

    Another resource for solos interested in unbundling is the ABA’s Standing Committee for the Delivery of Legal Service’s website which has white papers and state by state links to the different ethics rules on unbundling.

    While most states are supportive of unbundling legal services, some of them have different rules about ghostwriting and working with pro se litigants in limited scope representation. Just this past month, there was an article in the Montana Lawyer discussing the state’s adoption of unbundled legal services. “Ghost Writers in the Big Sky: Is Montana Ready for Limited Scope Representation?”by Joe Sullivan (36-NOV Mont. Law. 4)
    http://www.montanabar.org/associations/7121/November%202010%20mt%20lawyer.pdf

  • With regard to Scott’s comment, it has always seemed to me that an unbundled practice can only make money through high volume, and in turn, high volume practices work best when there are economies of scale. No single solo has the economies of scale to make money like a Walmart. That is why volume “mill” practices, and unbundled-only practices will always be a tough sell. However – if you view these practices as either feeders for higher value cases, or a means to capture clients who otherwise could not pay, then it becomes a way of diversifying your practice.

    • Carolyn, I believe the first person uses it as a feeder to higher paying clients and the second is two lawyers (if not more) who are building a volume and diversified practice. However, as competition becomes stiffer and more people are unable to afford full service, I believe many practices will have to increase volume just to survive. I think the ‘choice’ will no longer be there for a significant portion of the profession. This may very well lead to more ‘legal networks’ of professional service providers and simply a whole other ‘animal’ created we have yet to encounter!

    • I’m seeing a different kind of unbundled practice cropping up where solos, some in different states, are opening up diversified practices where they provide some unbundled services online and create a referral network to help pull in the quantity you speak of – like a virtual law firm of solo practices – that pool resources to pull in online unbundled clients and then refer them to the attorney in their network that handles that state law or practice area. There are no referral fees exchanging hands, just the understanding that the online clients need “x” service and so they refer them to their network VLOs.

      Also, some solos are creating a virtual law firm agreement where they are part of a multi-state firm that refers unbundling cases to each other, but retain their own solo practices in each state. In the past month alone I’ve worked with two such groups of solos trying to band together to provide unbundling in this way.

      As unbundling becomes more popular, this networking will become more common because you are right, it does require a high volume of clients to sustain this form of practice if it is completely web-based unbundling. That said, there is a lot of untapped potential to provide unbundling to pro se and “low bono” individuals.

      I’m working with some folks at different legal aid orgs to discuss how we can bridge this gap in access to justice by connecting these folks who need unbundled services from the legal aid offices that can’t help them to the virtual law offices and unbundling attorneys who can. The need is out there; it’s just a question of finding more efficient ways to deliver it and for private practitioners to work with legal aid services to facilitate this. It would result in an increase in quantity of paying clients for the solos and provide a service for the public that’s not there.

  • Great post. One big concern many litigators have is the “partial” appearance in a case. For example, suppose client wants you to only handle case up to trial, but if not settled client does not have the funds to pay. Once you are in the case, its hard to get out and court might not let you. I think more of us would unbundle in CT if there was some more clarity. Is CT considering a model rule? Have there been any advisory opinions? Kane

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