A recent experience in family court reinforced my belief that providing effective client service involves more than just flexing our legal muscles – it involves being flexible to meet the needs and achieve cost-appropriate goals for a client. Unbundled legal services is one such example of flexibility.
I became involved in a case where the client could not afford to retain a lawyer on a full-time basis. It was agreed that the client would continue to act as a self-represented litigant, responding to a family law motion, but I would work with the client behind the scenes, drafting pleadings together with the client and coaching the client as to how to effectively present their own case in court.
At a recent settlement conference, I attended ostensibly as an observer. The client had attended the conference with a draft Order we had prepared, using it as a model for a hoped-for outcome and using it to help guide the judge’s approach. Just prior to the lunch break, however, the judge indicated that the case would be held over to the afternoon session. This was after the moving party had raised some concerns over the relief sought by my client in responding to the motion, and the judge had posed some questions.
Flexibility, rather than staunchly adhering to the draft Order already in hand, proved to be the key to success. I always travel with what I call my mobile office – a small, tablet-sized laptop, a portable scanner (not much larger than a ruler) and a memory stick, along with having all of my files accessible remotely. The addition of a small, mobile printer expands that remote capability. The client and I found a private work area, together we re-drafted the Order to address the moving party’s concerns and to reflect the judge’s comments, and within the hour a fresh draft was produced and printed, ready to be handed up to the judge.
The judge was very impressed, amazed at how this self-represented litigant had re-drafted and printed an Order over the break. I remained seated in the back of the court, watching the proceedings, and watching the way a judge was directed toward a result through efficient and timely document creation, as well as through the extensive pre-hearing coaching of the client. The client walked out of the court with an excellent result, a signed Order in hand, and the client did not have to re-mortgage their house to afford the limited, unbundled legal services provided.
What did I walk way with? Mostly, the satisfaction of having been able to assist a client effectively as far as a result, and cost effectively too. Other than me attending court for that one settlement conference, more as an observer than anything else, the client had attended several prior attendances at court on their own, only having my involvement behind the scenes. It saved the client thousands of dollars that would have been spent on a conventional retainer. It made for a very satisfied client and the potential for good word-of-mouth referrals thereafter.
The Law Society of Upper Canada has put forward some commentary about unbundled legal services, which can be found at www.lsuc.on.ca/unbundling/ and which is worth reviewing. Not every case lends itself to providing service on a limited scope retainer, but in appropriate cases, it can lead to a lawyer-client relationship that otherwise might not have been created because the client simply cannot afford to hire a lawyer using the conventional model of a retainer.
The same model can be effective in acting for other lawyers as an agent or as counsel. A limited scope retainer may involve using a lawyer simply to draft a pleading within their level of expertise for another firm, or to act as an agent on a discovery, a motion or even at trial. The ultimate control over a file, and the relationship with the client, is maintained by the retained lawyer, but other skills and experience can be drawn upon to enhance the services provided to the client.
As I have made the transition over this past year into my running my own firm as a sole practitioner, after having spent the prior quarter century within a conventional firm structure, the importance of flexibility has become even more apparent. At its heart, the driving force is the desire and need to provide effective client service. Law is a business, and without a doubt the dollars and cents matter to us, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that our primary job is to serve our clients, and their dollars and cents matter to them just as much. Providing unbundled legal services is one way of respecting that, especially when the cost of litigation has been increasing exponentially, putting it beyond the reach of many potential individual clients and making it less justifiable to our institutional clients.