Last week I wrote about how to figure out whether you can represent yourself in a divorce, or whether you need to hire a lawyer to represent you. But those two options are not mutually exclusive. In today’s world, you can have the benefit of legal advice, and still represent yourself. How? It’s called “unbundled legal services”.
What are Unbundled Legal Services?
When most people think of hiring a divorce lawyer, they think of retaining that lawyer to represent them in their case. That means that the lawyer will give them legal advice, draft and file their legal documents, negotiate for them, and go to court for them. But today, you don’t necessarily need to hire an attorney to do ALL of those things for you. If you are willing to do a little digging, you can usually find an attorney who is willing to provide “unbundled legal services” for you.
According to businessdictionary.com, “unbundling” is: “The process of breaking apart something into smaller parts.” 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 (which are also sometimes referred to as “limited scope representation”) means that you can get help from a lawyer, without hiring that lawyer to fully represent you in every aspect of your case.
How do Unbundled Legal Services Work?
Here are five examples of how you could use unbundled legal services to get help in your case:
1. You can buy an hour of legal advice. If you have a simple case, and you want or need to handle it yourself, you can hire an attorney just to review the facts of your case and give you legal advice.
The lawyer can help educate you about the law and 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.
(NOTE: While the quality of the legal documents you receive 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 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 write up the terms of your agreement, take it to an attorney, and have the attorney put your agreement into the proper legal form, and draft all of your legal documents for you. That way, you know you will be getting quality legal documents.
You can then go to court yourself and present them to the judge.
(Fair warning, though. Most lawyers will insist that they give you [and 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 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 put your mediation agreement into legal documents. If you and your spouse have used a mediator to reach an agreement, you can take your mediated settlement agreement to an attorney, and have the attorney incorporate your mediated settlement agreement into a final judgment for dissolution of marriage and draft the other necessary legal documents for you. Then you can go to court yourself and present the documents to the judge.
(HINT: The smartest thing to do is to hire a lawyer and get legal advice BEFORE you go to mediation too. 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 hire an attorney to simply review the paperwork and make sure it is okay before you go to court.
(NOTE: If you choose to do this, though, you need to know that the online legal document services produce paperwork that is okay, but not great. It tends to be fairly generic. It is often not in the court’s preferred format, and you may be missing documents that the court requires. While those online documents may be sufficient for a judge to accept them from you [since you don’t have an attorney], most lawyers are going to want to re-do the documents to make them right.)
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 maintenance (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 was over, and the judge entered an order about temporary support and maintenance, the lawyer would withdraw and you would be on your own again.
(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 alternative for those who truly can not afford full-on legal representation. They can work well in cases that are not too complicated because they provide at least some kind of legal representation at an affordable price.
Of course, you also get what you pay for.
If your case is highly contested (i.e. you and your spouse can’t agree on what time of day it is), or very complicated, or you have a lot of money, you are not going to be well served by trying to represent yourself, even if you are paying for legal advice on the side. Having a lawyer who is familiar with all of the facts and circumstances of your case, who knows the law and who knows how to handle conflict and navigate the court system, will get you a much better outcome than what you could hope to get if you try to “go it alone.”
If you are too nervous to speak up for yourself in court, or in mediation, going without a lawyer is not going to be your best choice. (That is, unless, of course, you enjoy getting run over.)
If you don’t understand the legal system at all, and you don’t want to learn, using unbundled legal services is not going to be wise. Even if you hire an attorney to advise you, or draft your documents for you, if you can’t figure out the court system enough to get them your documents filed or entered properly in your case, you are going to be in trouble.
Finally, if your case is contested and your spouse has an experienced divorce attorney representing him/her, going without a lawyer yourself is a very bad idea.
When should you consider using “unbundled legal services?”
If your case is fairly simple and agreed, using unbundled legal services may be a good option. 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.
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