Last night's softball game was cancelled causing a change in plans. My daughter and I decided to hit the local bookstore. She headed for the young readers section and, after looking at the best-seller shelf, I headed over to the "Law" section. I'm always interested in seeing the "self-help" books being sold to the unsuspecting public. Two topics dominate legal self-help books: family/divorce and estate planning. Two areas affecting the "2 Big F's" that matter to your happiness and sanity on a daily basis: Family and Finances.
I particularly love the "all 50 states" books and kits proclaiming to summarize the law in every state or promising to provide all you need for your case. Any lawyer who practices domestic relations here knows all too well that each county has its own local rules and procedures for domestic cases to the point knowing Pennsylvania law is merely scratching the surface. I thumbed through two such books last night both containing wrong and incomplete legal information for Pennsylvania. One listed a singular "go to" website for Pennsylvania law for the reader to use as a legal research resource...it was an aol member website! That's a shame since free legal research websites that are either sponsored by the legislature or by respected legal research companies are readily available. These kits and books are very popular. There are very understandable reasons why with the two biggest being the following:
1. A large segment of the population, moderate to middle income folks, have been priced out of legal representation. You may not know this but state bar associations across the country as well as the American Bar Association have recognized this and your situation. There is even a name for it - the "justice gap." The ABA and some states have also recognized unbundled legal services using limited scope agreements as a sound way to close or alleviate this gap. Lawyers are slow to respond and few provide limited scope arrangements. Yet, the cost of having a lawyer the traditional way is too expensive for many. In the full-representation arrangement, retainers on the low end for family division cases are $1500-2500 on the high end $7500 and higher for complex equitable distribution or custody cases. Hourly rates range anywhere from $200 to $400+.* Retainers may not last the entire case and may have to be replenished.
2. Technology, in particular the Internet, and the increasing popularity of people wanting to Do-It-Yourself ("DIY") is the second reason "self-help" kits and books are popular. DIY, if done right and that is a critical element, can not only save you money but allow you to remain in control of the project. With my house, I'm a DIY type and on those portions where I have to hire a professional I start "twitching" because I can't completely control the outcome. The desire to control for some is important. The Internet, a never-ending source of resources (with a big dose of caveat emptor!), does place information previously possessed by the trained expert into the hands of everyone. But a lawyer reading plumbing information and trying to install a new toilet is not the same as a plumber with years of experience installing that toilet! (Off topic and maybe not even interesting - my personal rule is if it involves pipes or wires the expert is called in, after that, everything else is fair game!). The lawyer may install that toilet just fine. Some may have no problems. Some may do it successfully but it takes them all weekend (a waste of billable hours!). And some may flood the downstairs and cause mayhem. That is the key with DIY: can you do the project in a way that is efficient, correct and will not harm you or cost you more money or time or cardiac altering stress in the end.
Deciding to handle your divorce, custody or support case with unbundled legal services under a limited scope agreement, involves the same types of initial questions and decisions as any other DIY project. You need to ask: what can I handle on my own (and save money) and what areas (just like pipes and wires) do I need an expert to step in. Unlike having to always hire the plumber or electrician to do the whole task, with legal services you may only need to hire the lawyer for an advice or coaching session and then complete the task on your own. That's like being able to call an electrician and have them willing to give you a 45 minute advice session on how to install that ceiling fan.
Utilizing a lawyer for unbundled legal services is a sensible and smart way to handle a family law matter for many people and many cases. First, it is a heck of a lot better than relying, no hoping, on books, kits and randomly discovered information on the Internet. Buyer beware! Not all online divorce service sites are offering true unbundled legal services. You are looking for a real lawyer, with a real law practice offering the delivery of distinct identifiable legal tasks under a limited scope agreement. Lawyers who offer these services usually also deliver these services via an online platform (like my firm's menu here) and many also practice law the old fashioned traditional way.
To identify the real deal: can you identify the lawyer, know the lawyer practices in goodstanding in your state, and be able to reach out to and communicate with the lawyer. Can you get your information,documents, petitions filed against you, and any other relevant thing to the lawyer so he or she can provide a service that is truly relevant to your case and your needs. Do you have their e-mail, phone number, address or a secure and private login with their firm? Bottomline, ask yourself the following: are you hiring a real lawyer to complete a specific task and can you actually work and communicate with this lawyer - online, in person or both - or are you are buying a form or a kit with no identifiable lawyer and no support or professional to communicate with after you buy the form or kit. In the first scenario you are spending your hard earned money on real legal help and have that help on hand at your request throughout your case. In the second scenario you are giving your money to a company in the business of selling duplicate forms with no advice. In many cases very little, if any, lawyer involvement went into the forms and information sold.
Unbundling your divorce provides you with help for virtually every aspect of your case but on an ala carte basis. From getting the pleadings to file, to a marriage settlement agreement, to a set of discovery requests for your spouse to produce documents and answer questions formally, to the drafting of a motion to argue to the court your spouse is not producing that information in violation of the rules of court. Custody and support matters can also be handled this way. Need a session of legal advice to prepare yourself for presenting a motion or negotiating a settlement? You can buy a timed session (my firm offers 45 minute sessions with a pre-session e-mail for information gathering included to make the phone session as productive and focused as possible). Did the mail bring you the surprise of a nasty petition seeking to take custodial rights away from you? You can upload the petition served against you (or scan and e-mail or old fashion stamp and mail) to the lawyer, have a lawyer review it, and get advice as to what it all means and how to respond. If you want, your response can be "ghostwritten" by the lawyer or you draft it perhaps only wanting to have an advice or coaching session about your oral argument in court rebutting the petition. With unbundled limited scope you do not retain the lawyer full time under a large retainer. You hire the lawyer per task for a fee that should be readily communicated if not set forth directly on their website.
The benefits of unbundled legal services are many:
1. You have access to real legal advice, and legal documents specific to your case and your state and local laws/rules of court that move beyond a duplicate form complaint from a kit to specific petitions and responses, discovery demands, without having to retain a lawyer full time on a retainer;
2. You know the cost of the legal work you are purchasing upfront before you spend money;
3. You maintain a level of control over your case and specifically over the legal costs;
4. You are doing it yourself but not doing it "alone" because you have a lawyer in your state you can reach out to and use the services of on an as needed basis. Call this the best of both worlds.
5. You have sensibly and smartly responded to the "justice gap" or your personal desire to DIY by using professional legal services while handling many parts of the case on your own such as filing, calendaring, presenting oral argument, etc.
Many books, kits, and "discount" online divorce sites are not even created or written by lawyers let alone lawyers with bar admission in your state. They are businesses with one goal, making money off of your need as a "justice gap" individual to save money or your desire to DIY. True unbundled legal services address these needs but also provide you with a real lawyer, in your state, providing documents and advice/coaching tailored to your case when you hire the lawyer to provide them. Big difference. And a very smart way to handle your domestic relations case in many instances.
To read what others are saying about undundled legal services/limited scope represention in domestic relation cases, a link:
* These figures are from my years locally discussing retainers and rates with fellow attorneys and individuals who have been quoted or have paid same.