Clients using unbundled legal services feel empowered by having control of their own case, while it is the best way for solicitors to bill every minute of their time, a pioneering family lawyer said this week.
Ursula Rice, founder and director of Family First Solicitors, said 25-30% of the Oxford, London and St Albans firm’s caseload was now unbundled advice – marketed as ‘pay as you go’ and as costing £3,000 against a ‘traditional’ £8,000 divorce.
Speaking at a session on innovation at this week’s Solicitors Regulation Authority compliance conference in Birmingham, she said most clients were capable of handling their own matter, but three in 10 were told “I think you can do it but you can switch to full representation if that’s what you want later”.
Ms Rice went on: “Family law is full of unbelievably anxious clients… and an anxious client is a busy client. An anxious client who has been given a job to do will do that job before you’re on your second elevenses.”
Common complaints about family lawyers were the cost and not knowing what was going on – but the Family First model sees the client act as a litigant in person, meaning they are actually the first to know.
“When you are fully representing a client, you are the hub from which all information emanates and comes to. You have control. When you’re unbundled, in our system, you explain to the client that they are the hub.
“If they need counsel, it’s direct access. Sure, you can help them to get their direct access, which they pay you to do, but they are the directing mind.”
Anxiety was “counteracted by the empowerment that clients feel, particularly if they’ve been in an abusive situation, with the sense that they’re not going to run out of money before a really important step. You’re just a spoke on their wheel – that’s the way to look at it.”
Ms Rice stressed the importance of a clear client-care letter and of the lawyer capturing the advice they have given. It was vital too that the solicitor specify the points in the process when the client should seek their advice, for example when they received the court date.
“It actually flows very naturally. No client says, ‘The court form’s just come through the post, I’ll put it at the back of the sock drawer’.”
Ms Rice said her firm had a rule that clients could not receive advice without making an appointment. “There are no random letters or emails that go to the client with advice. They have to come to you – they can have a copy of my attendance note if that’s what they want – but they don’t get written advice outside the system.”
She went on: “Unbundling is by far the most profitable way of capturing every minute. The conversation goes like this: ‘Hi, how are you, nice to see you. (Of course we’re on Teams.) Right, the clock’s on. What’s happened?’
“Boy, does that focus people. Your clock goes tick, tick, tick – I tell them it’s the old six minutes. Don’t talk to me for seven minutes. That’s like you’ve bought one cake slice and licked the second and put it back on the shelf. So it’s incredibly transparent.”
The solicitor said the firm had only ever received complaints from two unbundled clients.
“If you put the right implementation and processes around it, it just takes away the two big problems – communication speed and cost, because when you unbundle, and the client is doing a lot of the work, you’ve just removed baseline 30% of their fees.
“None of this ‘It took me three hours but I’ll only time record one hour’ That’s not the client’s problem, that’s your problem because they’ve got two hours of free work.”
Family First has been taking part in the SRA unbundling pilot, a major report on which was published in June. Ms Rice added: “If it really isn’t for you, then one of the things I suspect is that you like control… But if you feel pain in delivering access to justice, then it’s something that people can and should try.”