What is limited scope representation?

Limited scope representation explained

limited scope-legal representation golden triangleLimited scope representation is, at its core, a client-lawyer partnership in a given civil case. In such an arrangement, the lawyer agrees to perform certain services for a fee, and the client agrees to handle other aspects of the case.

As an illustration, let’s say you have a medical condition requiring surgery. Obviously, you would want a qualified, experienced surgeon to perform the surgery. But the actual operation is only part of the process. Someone must procure the surgical instruments. Someone must clean them and ensure they are safe to use. Someone must move you to and from the operating room. Those extra helpers are not themselves surgeons, nor do they need the surgeon’s level of expertise to adequately and safely perform their tasks.

In the same way, an experienced, knowledgeable attorney is necessary to represent your interests in some aspects of a civil proceeding. However, some of the steps, some of the “work,” does not require a law degree or even experience as legal counsel.

In some instances, a client can perform some of the steps necessary in a civil legal proceeding — gathering documents, for example — and only use the full service of an attorney for certain segments of the case.

This type of arrangement is of most benefit to clients who may not otherwise be able to afford the full service of an attorney in a civil proceeding. Limited scope legal representation — also referred to as “unbundled” legal services, meaning a client pays for certain services and performs others himself/herself — allows clients to seek justice when they may otherwise not be able to see a case to fruition because of financial concerns.

This type of legal representation has advocates and opponents. Those who oppose it contend attorneys should represent clients at every step of the legal process, and, in a perfect world, that position would be true and sufficient. However, fiscal constraints often prevent those who have been wronged from pursuing rightful claims. It is those cases, advocates note, in which limited scope legal representation can help men, women, and children get their day in court and be made whole again from those who harmed them.

Put a simple way: Limited scope legal representation helps you help yourself.

What types of actions might be candidates for “Unbundling”?

The judicial system handles criminal cases ranging from the simplest traffic violations to the most serious capital murders and civil cases from two-party financial disagreements to the largest class-action lawsuits involving hundreds of people and billions of dollars.

The words have been ascribed to many, but they are true for the most part: He who has himself for a lawyer is a fool. Most of us have neither the knowledge nor the expertise to represent ourselves in court. But, it is also true that not every task necessary for a successful legal action requires a law degree.

It is entirely possible someone representing himself/herself in a family law case or probate case can do some of the work, without having an attorney or that attorney’s staff do so. Gathering documents, appearing in court and other acts can lessen the cost of a judicial action while allowing someone to retain as much control as he/she feels necessary and can afford.

To be sure, some cases require the step-by-step involvement of a knowledgeable and experienced attorney. If your livelihood or life is at stake, you don’t want to make legal decisions on your own. But, if the unbundled services of an attorney can help you save money while navigating the less-dangerous parts of the judicial system, everyone wins.

Law a la Carte Can improve court system access

An opinion piece published on the website of the American Bar Association chronicles the rise in popularity of limited-scope legal representations.

Stephanie Kimbro, author of “Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self-Help Client” and provider of unbundled estate planning services since 2006, penned the piece, “Law a la Carte: The Case for Unbundling Legal Services”.

She began by explaining unbundling legal services will improve access to the judicial system by those who otherwise couldn’t afford to proceed with a cause of action: “Many individuals who need legal assistance are either postponing what they can, are going into the courthouse alone without any guidance, or are going online to cut and paste together their own legal documents or turning to nonlawyer legal service companies. Increased adoption of unbundling by law firms provides the public with an alternative form of legal service delivery, increasing public access to justice.”

Kimbro spelled out a number of services an attorney could provide on an “unbundled” basis: advice on courtroom procedures, legal research, document review, negotiating, limited appearances in court, organizing discovery materials, ghostwriting court documents and myriad others.

The author hit a common note for anyone writing about limited-scope legal representations: It is imperative the client and attorney clearly state what services will be provided and, perhaps more importantly, what services will not be provided within the agreement: “Client education is key to responsible unbundling. The law firm should provide the client with a clear explanation of what full-service representation of the matter would entail so that the client may understand the difference between full and limited representation as well as understand his or her responsibilities under the agreement.”

Kimbro further explained unbundled services may allow for “alternative fee arrangements,” further helping a cost-conscious client to pay for services over time, further helping low-income clients access the court system in ways previously unavailable.

American Bar Association, Arkansas rules officials spell out rules for limited-scope representations

Many bar association standards and explanations regarding limited-scope legal representations focus on an attorney’s responsibility to communicate with her client, clearly defining what services the attorney will provide and also ensuring any individuals on the other side of an action either have legal representation or fully understand any correspondence between the involved parties.

The American Bar Association’s standing committee on ethics and professional responsibility in November 2015 spelled out an attorney’s accountability measures regarding limited-scope representation, also called “unbundled” legal services. These rules govern an attorney’s action inside and outside a courtroom, protecting individuals’ rights.

The group used a Colorado Bar Association’s verbiage: A limited-scope representation should “clearly explain the limitations of the representation, including the types of services which are not being provided and the probable effect of limited representation on the client’s rights and interests.”

Putting these services/limits in writing is helpful: “Particularly in the context of limited-representation agreements, however, a writing clearly explaining what is and is not encompassed within the agreement to provide services will be helpful in ensuring the parties’ mutual understanding,” the committee wrote.

According to the committee, attorneys must understand the legal representation of parties in a criminal or civil action to ensure the parties understand the proceedings. The committee also noted an attorney must not contact a party in an action when that person has a legal representative.

These rules are in place to protect parties to an action.

In the same opinion, Formal Opinion 472, the committee spelled out specific instances lending themselves to limited-scope representation. According to the committee, drafting or reviewing documents is one acceptable form of limited-scope representation.

The committee noted limited-scope representations help serve low-income persons who need help navigating the legal arena: Such representations are intended, in part, “to provide a framework within which lawyers may expand access to legal services by providing limited but nonetheless valuable legal services to low- or moderate-income persons who otherwise would be unable to obtain counsel.”

To sum, state and national organizations governing the legal profession have issued directions and guidance as to how attorneys may act in regard to limited-scope representations. These rules protect clients, parties to actions and attorneys by ensuring those with the most legal knowledge adhere to strict codes of conduct.

Legal rules may vary from state to state, and so the rules regarding limited-scope legal representations in Arkansas may not be the same as rules in other states.

Limited-scope legal representations also called “unbundled legal services,” involve actions in which an attorney provides some, but not all, necessary services for a given action. For example, in a child custody case, an attorney may write documents to submit to the court, but the client may gather other documents, thereby reducing the cost of the legal representation. Such agreements allow low-income persons to pursue legal remedies, while also protecting their rights and providing information at every step along the way.

In Arkansas, Rule 87 of the Rules of Professional Conduct governs limited-scope legal representations. It permits such representation and dictates how such representations proceed, including requiring notice of such representations in certain cases.

For the most part, the rule allows an attorney to draft documents for a client who would otherwise be representing himself. Further, the rule allows the attorney to use the client’s “representation of facts unless the attorney has reason to believe that such a representation is false or materially insufficient.”


-Authored By Rick Fahr