The first thing most people think about when they are facing a divorce is getting a lawyer. But divorce lawyers are expensive. Not everyone can afford to be represented by a lawyer in their divorce. Luckily, in today’s world, you can have the benefit of legal advice and still represent yourself. How? It’s called “unbundled legal services.”
The History of Unbundled Legal Services
When most people think about hiring a lawyer, they think about full-on legal representation. In that kind of traditional legal representation, your lawyer drafts and files your documents for you, gives you legal advice, and goes to court for you. In other words, your lawyer takes care of all of your legal needs in a case.
Historically, that was the only way that lawyers were allowed to work with clients. Legal representation was pretty much an “all or nothing” proposition.
In many states today, however, that has now changed. Lawyers can now split their legal work into pieces. They can provide what is known as “limited scope” legal representation, or “unbundled legal services.”
What are Unbundled Legal Services?
According to dictionary.com, “unbundling” means:
“… to separate the charges for (related products or services usually offered as a package).”
In the context of your divorce, that means that you can hire an attorney to do some, but not all, of the legal work in your case.
Unbundled legal services are discreet legal services for only a specific part of your divorce. For example, you can now hire a lawyer to give you legal advice in your divorce without having the lawyer actually represent you in your divorce. You can hire a lawyer just to draft your documents. Or, you can hire a lawyer just to represent you at one court hearing, and not in your entire case.
How do Unbundled Legal Services Work?
Not every state allows lawyers to “unbundle” their legal services. Some states still require you to hire a lawyer to represent you in your whole case. If you don’t want full representation in those states, you’re stuck. You can’t hire a lawyer to just do a part of your case.
But, in the states that do allow limited scope representation (like Illinois), lawyers are permitted to break apart their legal representation into various parts. They can do some, but not all, of your legal work for you.
Since lawyers typically charge by the hour, hiring a lawyer on a limited basis helps you keep your legal fees in check.
Here are five examples of how you could use unbundled legal services to get help in your case:
1. You can buy a few hours of legal advice.
If you have a simple case, you may want to handle it yourself. You can do that. But you would be wise to at least hire an attorney to talk to you and give you legal advice first.
The lawyer can help educate you about the law. S/he can tell you how the law might apply in your case. The lawyer can also give you tips about what you should or shouldn’t do, based upon the law and the facts of the case. Then you can prepare your own paperwork (or have the documents prepared by an online service such as Legal Zoom) and go to court yourself.
(NOTE: While the quality of the legal documents you receive from Legal Zoom will not necessarily be as good as those that a lawyer would prepare for you, depending upon your circumstances, they may be “good enough.” They will also probably be much better than anything you could write yourself.)
2. You can use a lawyer just to draft your legal documents.
If you and your spouse have agreed on how you are going to divide everything and you have worked out a parenting plan for your children, you can hire a lawyer to just draft your documents.
The lawyer will put your agreement into the proper legal form. You can also hire him/her to help you make sure you have all the court documents you will need to complete your divorce. Then, you can go to court yourself and present your documents to the judge.
(NOTE: Most lawyers will insist that they give you [and that you pay for] legal advice along with the documents. The reason for this is because attorneys have an obligation to do a good job. If you have agreed to something crazy, or you have given up your legal rights to something you might be entitled to receive, most lawyers are going to feel duty-bound to explain that to you.)
3. You can use a lawyer to draft legal documents based upon a mediated agreement.
In most places, mediators will not draft your legal documents for you. They will draft a mediated agreement that reflects the terms you and your spouse agreed upon in your divorce. But they will not put that agreement into final legal form. They also will not draft all the other legal documents you will need in order to complete your divorce.
If you and your spouse have used a mediator to reach an agreement, you can take your mediated settlement agreement to an attorney. That attorney will then draft your final judgment for dissolution of marriage based on that agreement. The lawyer will also prepare the other necessary legal documents for you. Then you can go to court yourself and present all those documents to the judge.
(HINT: Even if you go to mediation, you still need a divorce lawyer. That’s because a mediator can’t give you legal advice. So, the smartest thing to do is to hire a lawyer BEFORE you go to mediation. That way, you will know much more about what you are doing, and what you should or should not agree to, in the mediation.)
4. You can hire a lawyer just to review your documents.
If you and your spouse have used an online legal document service to prepare your paperwork, you can still hire an attorney to review that paperwork and make sure it is in proper form before you go to court. (Fair warning though. Given the current quality of online legal documents, most lawyers are going to tell you that you need to re-do them. It’s not that the lawyers are trying to rip you off. It’s just that they have an ethical obligation to point out any problems they see with the documents they review.)
Or, if your spouse has a lawyer but you don’t, you can hire a lawyer to go over the documents your spouse’s attorney wrote. That way you can make sure that you understand the terms of the agreement, and that there’s nothing hidden in there that you don’t know about.
(NOTE: No matter who you are or what you do, having a lawyer look over your legal documents before you sign them is smart. That’s especially true if your spouse has a lawyer and you don’t.)
5. You can hire a lawyer to represent you in one particular hearing.
While this is a bit controversial, and not all lawyers will do it, if you live in a state that allows lawyers to provide this kind of limited scope representation, it may be possible for you to hire a lawyer to represent you at just one hearing.
For example, if your spouse filed a motion for temporary child support and temporary spousal support (alimony), and you did not want to try to handle that hearing yourself, you could hire a lawyer to represent you just at that hearing. Once the hearing is over, the lawyer’s representation will end. Then you can handle the rest of your case yourself.
(NOTE: The reason many lawyers won’t do this is because even a simple hearing often requires a good deal of preparation. If you have not done that preparation properly, a lawyer will be reluctant to come in just for the hearing, because s/he won’t have the tools s/he needs to conduct the hearing right.)
Are Unbundled Legal Services Right for You?
Unbundled legal services are a fabulous option for some people. But they won’t work for everyone.
If your case is highly contested (i.e. you and your spouse can’t agree on what time of day it is), you really should have full legal representation. If your divorce is complicated, or you have a lot of money, representing yourself will not be your best choice. Having an experienced lawyer who knows the law and the facts of your case will get you a much better outcome than what you will get if you “go it alone.”
On the other hand, if your case is fairly simple and agreed, using unbundled legal services may be a good option. It’s certainly a better option than getting a divorce without a lawyer or without getting ANY legal advice.
If you have more time than money, and you don’t mind learning enough about how the legal system works to navigate through the court system on your own, unbundled legal services can be a great way to get through your divorce economically.
Or, if you simply can’t afford full-on legal representation, using unbundled legal services can help you get at least some level of legal assistance so that you are not going through your divorce blindly.
Who Shouldn’t Use Unbundled Legal Services?
Even if your divorce seems relatively simple or straightforward, there are still times when having a lawyer represent you from start to finish makes sense.
For example, if you are too nervous to speak up for yourself, going to court without a lawyer is not going to be your best choice. (That is, unless, of course, you enjoy getting run over.) The same thing is true in mediation. If you can’t speak up for yourself, you shouldn’t mediate by yourself.
If you don’t understand the legal system and you don’t want or have time to learn how it works, you need a lawyer to help you. Using unbundled legal services when you have no idea of what’s going on in your divorce is foolish. All you will do is frustrate yourself and the judge when you show up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong documents.
Finally, if your case is contested and your spouse has an experienced divorce attorney representing him/her, you need your own divorce lawyer.
The Bottom Line
Unbundled legal services can make getting through your divorce cheaper … but only for the right couple.
Every divorce is different. Every couple’s needs are different. There is no “one size fits all” way to go through a divorce.
For the right divorcing couple, unbundled legal services can save them money. Instead of paying thousands of dollars for full-on legal representation, they can get their legal needs met for a fraction of the cost.
At the same time, for the wrong divorcing couple, using unbundled legal services can make a mess. It can actually make your divorce take longer and cost more.
If you’re trying to muddle through your divorce without a lawyer, and you don’t do things properly, you could easily have to go to court multiple times to do what a divorce lawyer could do in a single court appearance. You may have to write and re-write documents multiple times.
Or, worse yet, the judge could sign your defective divorce documents. Then when you discover problems in those documents weeks or months later, you could have to go back to court and try to get the judge to let you change them. That isn’t easy. It doesn’t always work. And it is always more expensive than doing them right the first time.
So, should you use unbundled legal services in your divorce? Just like with every other legal question you can ask, the answer is: It depends.
This post was originally published in 2014 and updated in 2019.