“I have a fairly uncomplicated divorce case — is it possible or even advisable to hire an attorney just for certain parts of the case? How would that work?”
The legal system calls what you are asking about “unbundled” services. Some (not many) attorneys give you the option of hiring them to just handle part of your case. The lawyer offering such services is often referred to as a “consulting attorney.” Traditionally, lawyers offered full representation. They made all decisions, did all the work, and were responsible for all aspects or your case. The consulting attorney, on the other hand, will not be the attorney of record. That means all legal notices go directly to the client and the client is ultimately responsible for his or her own case. If the attorney is going to make a deposition or court appearance, there is now a court form (FL-950-Notice of Limited Scope Representation) which permits limited representation on specified issues. Otherwise, the attorney does not represent, speak for, appear for, or sign papers on the Client’s behalf, does not provide services in excess of those specifically agreed upon, and usually does not make decisions for the client about any aspect of the case. If the client makes mistakes in handling his or her own case, the attorney is usually entitled by the terms of their limited services arrangement to immunity from being sued for professional malpractice. The attorney may terminate his or her obligation to provide specified services at any time, and, of course, the client may terminate the services as well.
Clients who choose unbundled services are not just concerned about saving money, though. They want a less formal or less threatening process. The option to buy select services and take responsibility for the management and implementation of their own divorce offers them a very welcome middle ground between full representation and handling it all by themselves.
Whether this is a good idea for you or not depends on many factors, including the difficulty of and the severability of the issues in your matter, your ability to handle the tasks that will be left for you to handle and to understand what you cannot do, and the ability of the attorney to coach you in your tasks and advise you when more professional input is necessary.
In order to make the services effective, the client also must cooperate with the attorney by providing information, pleadings, and correspondence in connection with the matter for which the client is requesting services; keeping the attorney advised of client’s concerns and any information that is pertinent to the case; and keeping all documents related to the case in a file for review by the attorney.
Most of all, the attorney and clients need to be clear about who is doing what. The client needs a clear, written agreement which sets out the responsibilities the attorney will assume and those he or she will not.
These are the types of services you may want the attorney to do on your behalf:
- Legal advice dispensed during office visits, telephone calls, fax, mail, e-mail;
- Advice about the availability and advisability of alternative means to resolving the dispute, including mediation and arbitration;
- Evaluation of Client’s self-diagnosis of the case and advising Client about legal rights;
- Guidance and procedural information for filing or serving documents;
- Review correspondence and court documents;
- Prepare and/or suggest documents to be prepared;
- Factual investigation including contacting witnesses, public record searches, in-depth interview of client;
- Legal research and analysis;
- Discovery: interrogatories, depositions, requests for document production;
- Planning for mediation/negotiations, including simulated role-playing with Client;
- Planning for court appearances made by Client, including simulated role-playing with the client;
- Back-up and troubleshooting during a hearing or trial;
- Referring Client to other counsel, expert or professional;
- Counseling Client about an appeal;
- Procedural assistance with an appeal and assisting with substantive legal argumentation in an appeal; and
- Provide preventive planning. Like all services for hire, you have to balance what you want, what you can afford, and the advantages and disadvantages of various ways of handling your particular divorce.
Fern Salka is a Certified Family Law Specialist with a law and mediation practice in Brentwood. She is the former chair of the Los Angeles County Bar Association Family Law Section and is listed by Los Angeles magazine as a SuperLawyer for 2004 and 2005.