Lawyers “need to unbundle services” to compete with online providers

Online competition: ABA says unbundling will also help improve access to justice

Lawyers should offer ‘unbundled’ legal services to the public in order to improve access to the law – and also to compete with online document assembly services like Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom, the American Bar Association (ABA) has said.

As well as improving access to justice for a rising number of self-represented litigants, it said unbundling services into more affordable chunks would help lawyers expand their client base.

Last week the association’s policy-making House of Delegates adopted a resolution on encouraging “limited scope representation”. Underlying the resolution, its sponsors said, was the “need for self-help alternatives to facilitate access to competent legal services” that has arisen from “a growing trend of self-representation”.

However, while limited scope representation is a “cost-effective solution” to the problem, research has shown that the people who would benefit from it most are not aware of the option, and neither do practitioners have clear guidance on how to go about it.

In a detailed overview to their report, the sponsors said: “Research clearly indicates that a growing number of people are foregoing the assistance of lawyers when confronted with a civil legal issue and are addressing their matters through self-representation. In many instances, people are turning to self-help alternatives, such as document preparation services available over the Internet.”

It said the advantage of unbundling to lawyers in private practice is that they can “charge their full rate, expand their client base because the cost per case is more affordable, and effectively compete with document preparation services”.

The likes of online document businesses LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are both well-known US brands, with Rocket Lawyer now established in the UK, with LegalZoom to follow after striking a deal with QualitySolicitors.

Without naming either, the report recorded the scale of the competition. “Online legal service providers are sometimes backed with millions of dollars in venture capital. One company advertises that over 15 million individuals and businesses have used their services. Another touts that it has over two million satisfied customers.”

Summarising the resolution, its sponsors said it would “encourage practitioners to consider limiting the scope of their representation, including the unbundling of legal services, when appropriate, as a means of increasing access to legal services.”

Unbundling was defined as the lawyer and client agreeing that the lawyer will provide some, but not all, of the work involved in traditional full service representation. “Simply put, the lawyers provide only the agreed upon tasks, rather than the whole ‘bundle’, and the clients perform the remaining tasks on their own.”


    Readers Comments

  • Erika Daniel says:

    I do unbundle sometimes, when appropriate, but not all cases are suitable even though a client may want to do so. A solicitor should always act in the best interests of their client, even if that means sometimes declining to act on a bundle basis. There may be some fruitful litigation comming up following all this “self help online lawyering”. Online has its part to play in the provision of legal services, but its never going to achieve the quality of personlal consultation with a qualified professional. With current technology that consultation may be online and that is where online services have their place.

  • Peter Browne says:

    Now closed on my recent retirement, my firm has offered a form of unbundling which we called “The Law Shop” since 1995.
    We asked all clients to chose between a “Law Shop” self-help service and a traditional Representation service. The Law Shop service included a range of self-help facilities, for example, providing free information and selling guide-sheets, legal forms and kits. The Law Shop option also provided face-to-face advice sessions with a qualified lawyer priced in 5 minute units.
    The boundary between Law Shop and Representation was that Law Shop did not include advocacy or communication with third parties; or communication with, or work for, the client outside an advice session with the client present and paying on the spot.
    Clients could opt to change from Law Shop to Representation at any time. But they could not use both modes for the same case at the same time, otherwise the boundary was impossible to maintain.
    By providing advice-only in Law Shop mode we were able to avoid the front-loaded costs of taking on a client for Representation and we could charge for advice at a lower hourly rate. Clients were pleased to cut costs and take control of simple cases, while we found the mentoring role very satisfying. A large number of new clients coming for advice-only were introduced to the practice. We stopped giving any free advice.
    Our system caused no regulatory or insurance problems in its 17 years of operation.
    One could argue that it’s not acting in the client’s best interests for a solicitor to charge for an expensive representation service without offering the client the option of assisted self-help where possible.

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