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Unbundled Legal Services: A new way to “hire” a lawyer

I’ve modified my divorce decree twice in the past 6 years.

Eating the elephant can be totally overwhelming just thinking about it. . .

The first time I was being harassed by the ORS (Office of Recovery Services) while trying to get into law school, and signed off on the modification documents the ex’s lawyer produced just to close the case.  The second time was during my first year of law school (because it didn’t take too long to realize that the first modification was a mistake.  Oops.)  Having been through the divorce and first modification without a lawyer, I decided I really wanted one for the second go-round.  So, I went in for my consultation–NOT free, btw–and spoke with an attorney here in Logan, UT, about what my chances were and what it would cost.

The attorney I spoke to was nice, if not completely negative (As an aside, since that time, I’ve learned that when I consulted with him, he had been in practice in Utah for not quite a year, and family law is a small portion of his total practice.)

. . .and honestly, carrying the whole bundle may be more than you can handle.

He informed me that my chances were not only slim, but that I’d have to come up with $2,500.00 up front before he’d even touch the case.  $2,500.00–when I was living on student loans, right before Christmas.  I had exactly zero dollars to spend on a lawyer, and knew that going through the Christmas holiday and trying to be Santa for my kids was not going to improve my financial situation.

So I ended up going it alone.  And it sucked.  The court staff was less than helpful, to put it nicely.  There were documents that had to be filed in a certain order, and things that had to be submitted to the court before they would complete my case.  But for the previous modification (I had copies of ALL the documents my ex’s attorney had filed in THAT case), I would have had no idea whatsoever what I was doing.  It took a year to get it done, largely because I was trying to figure out how to maneuver through the system on my own.

In the end, the court didn’t even bother to inform me that an Order had been entered.  I called them after what I thought was enough time for the judge to have gotten around to it, and they said it had been done.  THREE WEEKS previous.  I said, “So didn’t you think you needed to tell me when the court entered an order that affects my rights in relation to my children??”  And they said, “No.  That’s not our job.”  Seriously.

And so now I preach the religion of hiring a lawyer to handle your family law cases.  And I believe that wholeheartedly, based on my experiences.  But also based on my experiences, I know that it’s not always possible to come up with the money to pay a lawyer, especially thousands of dollars up front.

How about breaking that bundle apart? Makes it so much more manageable.

This is where “unbundling” comes into play.  The Utah Bar has been encouraging and promoting this at least since I got my license.  What it means is that an attorney helps out in a case, but doesn’t necessarily do everything.  For example, I picked up a client this evening who I am going to “backstop” for.  They will produce the documents themselves, with the help of the Utah State Courts Online Court Assistance Program (OCAP–See the Utah Courts Self-Help link at the right of this webpage), and I will review and give specific counsel and advice as they need it.  I’m not going to court with them–they continue to represent themselves, but with some legal guidance and counsel along the way.  There are other variations on this theme as well.  Perhaps the attorney will ONLY go to court with you, but you’ll do all the other work yourself.  You can work whatever arrangement is best in your situation.

This type of representation doesn’t require a retainer (at least, I don’t require a retainer for this).  I bill out at my regular hourly rate, billed in 6 minute increments, or tenths of an hour.  The client doesn’t pay anything up front.  I send them a bill once a month for whatever work I’ve done, and they pay as we go.

The client gets help navigating the legal system.  I have an opportunity to work for a client, plant the seed to get other client referrals from them, and help them to have a more positive experience with the court (or at least minimize some of the negative.)  It’s a Win-Win.  Look into it.  If you need a lawyer but cannot afford the big retainer up front, find one who will “unbundle” for you.  It’s more work for you, but oh, soooo much cheaper.

Three years ago I sure as hell could’ve used this myself.

  1. Jennifer Fitzgerald
    November 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    I am so glad that I somehow happened to stumble upon this blog. I think it’s great. I just got marred on 11/4 to a man who has 4 kids from his previous marriage. He’s been separated/divorced since about July 09. Anyway, at that time he made a lot more financially than he does now and we are currently just beginning the modification process with ORS. I’ve never heard of the “bundle” process that an attorney would offer and that is something I will absolutely keep in mind because we’ve asked ourselves many times as of recently… What are we going to do because we can’t afford thousands for an attorney right now. Anyway, thanks so much for taking your time to create this blog and share your knowledge and advice with others. So greatly appreciated!


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