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Unbundled Legal Services: Representing Yourself with Limited Help From an Attorney

Samuel K. Darling, Divorce & Business Lawyer at Genesis Law Firm's headquarters in Everett, WA

by Samuel K. Darling, Divorce & Business Law Lawyer in Everett, WA

Unbundled legal representation–defined as self representation with limited help from an attorney–has become increasingly popular during the recent period of economic stagnation. The theoretical purpose of partial representation is simple: the party uses a lawyer only when most needed, thereby reducing the party’s legal fees. Unfortunately the theoretical benefits often diverge from practical, real-life outcomes. This article helps litigants understand the advantages and disadvantages of unbundled legal services, as well as how to determine when partial representation is appropriate.

1. The Advantages. The advantages of unbundled legal services are relatively obvious yet worth acknowledging. Primarily and most obviously, this style of representation can be much less expensive than hiring an attorney in the traditional fashion. The client and attorney divide work between themselves, potentially reducing the number of hours the attorney spends on a given matter. The cost reduction allows economically underprivileged clients access to an attorney when fulltime representation would be cost prohibitive. Middle-class clients in turn use unbundled legal services to hire more expensive attorneys than they could otherwise afford. Everyone potentially gets more justice for the dollar when partial representation works properly.

2. The Disadvantages. Sadly unbundled legal services often result in cost increases rather than decreases. From the perspective of an attorney, teaching a litigant to perform a task can be more time consuming than directly handling the matter. Worse yet, an unpracticed litigant, despite an attorney’s help, will often unintentionally make mistakes. The lawyer then spends considerable client funds trying to fix the unintended errors.

Worst of all, the errors from partial representation sometimes lead to disastrous court outcomes a lawyer simply cannot fix after the fact.

3. Dispositive Factors. Three general factors seem to determine whether unbundled representation is a good choice for a litigant: a) the relative importance of the lawsuit to the litigant, b) the complexity of the legal matter, and c) the litigant’s ability to represent him/herself.

A. Relative Importance of the Lawsuit. The relative importance of the lawsuit is the primary factor when deciding the appropriateness of any level of partial or self representation. The higher the stakes in the legal dispute, the more an attorney should be involved. The opposite is true as well: the less there is at stake, the easier it is to justify unbundled legal services or self representation. For example, it makes no sense to hire an attorney for full representation in a case worth $2,000. Most likely, the attorney’s legal fees for full representation would exceed the amount in dispute, and losing the case would be a relatively nominal setback for the litigant. On the other hand, full representation is imperative when the stakes are high, such as dissolution of a high-asset marriage worth millions of dollars.

B. Complexity of the Legal Matter. The more complex the legal matter, the more strongly a litigant should consider hiring full legal representation. If the matter or legal task is simple, an attorney can probably successfully coach the litigant through the process. Whereas more complicated tasks usually require that the attorney handle the matter directly. This is true as a result of at least two reasons. The likelihood of the litigant making a mistake increases with the complexity of the task, regardless of whether an attorney provides some form of assistance. And an attorney can complete complex legal tasks relatively quickly in comparison to the time it takes to teach a novice litigant to do it.

C. Litigant’s Ability to Represent Him/Herself. Finally, unbundled legal services and self representation are less appropriate for parties who have difficulty performing legal tasks themselves. Parties might speak English as a second language, have learning impairments, or be too busy as single parents. These types of clients face an increased likelihood of frustration, mistakes, and overall poor outcomes when they attempt to negotiate legal processes on their own. Fair or not, more capable litigants are better candidates for unbundled legal services.

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9 thoughts on “Unbundled Legal Services: Representing Yourself with Limited Help From an Attorney”

  1. litigant has had to move to Alaska to care for her son who is non-functional and has been for two years or more and needs 24/7 care, litigants own a distillery, grape farm and home and also household items, Distillery is operating at a loss at this time, but all can be sold, is she liable for half of the debt,

  2. Self Represented Litigant

    I am extremely impressed at how much information your site offers. It is very informative for those who do represent themselves. Thanks to you for taking the time to put this together…

  3. Need help from a lawyer for finishing up my child support modification that is already filed but I have not heard from anyone about it about it and it’s been 3 weeks now.

  4. My husband passed away recently, at our home in Lacey, Wa. I need to file the papers to get his name taken off now. I have filled out everything I can think of. I just need someone to check what I did, and file for me, in Thurston County. I am sure u must have a courier service that does that. It is William Rhoades and Suzan A. Rhoades (Moriah Revocable Trust) as Tenants in Common. Parcel No. 63500200400. Can you help me please?

  5. A good documentation program referral. How to document narcissism. How to heighten awareness of neglect. How to heighten awareness of stalling on the case not for the courts benefit. How to disassociate from the gal after investigation happens.

  6. Kathleen Roberts

    I’m in Ca and looking for this type of help for Grandparent Visitation. Such an important matter and very little help on the internet.

  7. Sandy Cummings

    I filed for divorce in Kitsap CO WA looking for help. My husband was supposed to be moving to colorado for a job but keeps putting his start date out. Not sure that he has a job at this point. Need help getting back into my house and getting my 19 year old out as well. She put a no contact order on me. I don’t know how to start eviction proceedings on her as well. I need help.

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