Why Lawyers Should “Unbundle” for Family Court Matters

Over the last eight or so years a new practice in legal assistance has emerged. This practice is known as “unbundling” or “discrete task representation.” Unbundling or discrete task representation is a practice where an attorney may assist a person through the process of representing themselves in court. The attorney and the person decide at the beginning of the relationship what exactly the nature of the services provided will be. These services can be as simple as proofreading documents to as complicated as walking the person almost step by step through the court process, even serving as a back up in court. One large factor of an unbundled relationship is the attorney does NOT represent the client, the attorney does not speak for the client, does not argue in court for the client, the attorney merely guides the client.

Although this practice has been growing over the last decade, it is still very difficult to find an attorney that does offer unbundled services. This is surprising given the increasing number of Family Court litigants who appear in court representing themselves. Management reports from two districts in Wisconsin for the year 1999 showed Pro Se litigants in one district at 72 percent and the other district at 53 percent. These numbers are similar or only slightly higher than districts all over the country.

The question begs to be asked. Why would people choose to represent themselves in Family Court when the stakes are so high?

Court is a time is of the essence situation, people do not necessarily have the time to save a retainer that ranges anywhere from $1500 to $5000 prior to entering the court process. The availability of information about the Family Court process leads some people to believe the process to be simple enough to successfully tackle on their own. People do not trust lawyers. They feel lawyers are only interested in money; the lawyers really don’t care about the litigant’s property rights or their rights to their children.

Each of these examples is a very valid reason for people to not avail themselves of the expertise of an attorney.

Why should lawyers offer unbundled services? The first and probably most important reason to a lawyer trying to pay their bills is some money is better than no money. Assisting Pro Se Family Court litigants can provide valuable cash flow without placing a huge burden on the lawyer’s time. Lawyers need to keep in mind; the nature of the unbundled relationship is negotiated prior to the work starting, once the ground rules are in place, it’s easy for everyone to follow them. Twenty hours per month of unbundled assistance with immediate payment can provide much needed security for an attorney with a client load that pays mostly off of monthly statements, if at all. Unbundled billed hours can also work as a valuable offset to reduced rate hours or pro bono hours.

The second reason lawyers should consider unbundling is because it is just the right thing to do. People in family court are at risk of losing everything that is important to them. Attorney’s have the information these people need. These people are willing to pay for the information. For an attorney to refuse to allow this information to be purchased, at their normal hourly rate, just because the potential unbundled client can’t afford a retainer or wants to be in control of their case, further promotes the negative opinion of attorneys. Providing unbundled services can make an attorney feel just as good as providing pro bono services with the advantage of getting their normal hourly rate.

The third reason for lawyers to provide unbundled services is to contribute to maintaining the integrity and flow of the Family Court system. Even with all the information available to Pro Se litigants it is very easy and common for them to make mistakes. Helping these to avoid these mistakes that have devastating consequences, means they have a better opportunity for a satisfactory outcome. It also minimizes the likelihood that they will have to return to court in a short period of time to clarify items that weren’t handled properly the first time around.

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