Counsel's Corner: Limit your attorney fees with limited scopes

With no end of the economic downturn in sight the number of people serving as their own lawyers is on the rise across the country, and these cases are no longer limited to uncontested divorces and small claims. Even people embroiled in child custody battles, potentially devastating lawsuits and bankruptcies are representing themselves.This trend has resulted in court systems being bogged down with filings from people unfamiliar with legal procedure. Moreover, some of these pro per litigants, as they are known, are making mistakes with expensive and long-lasting consequences - perhaps confirming the old saying that he who represents himself has a fool for a client. I have been in court on a number of occasions and have witnessed cases in which parents have lost custody disputes because they were unfamiliar with such legal standards as burden of proof and how to present their case before the Court. While the fees lawyers charge vary widely, the average hourly rate ranges from around $260 to more than $400 in California, depending on what legal issue they are helping you with. With legal fees this high and unaffordable for some people it is not surprising that about 80 percent of people in California represent themselves in civil family law cases - such as divorce, custody and domestic violence cases - according to the Self-Represented Litigation Network. In San Diego alone, the number of divorce filings involving at least one person not represented by a lawyer rose from 46 percent in 1992 to 77 percent in 2000. The result also leaves the Courts absolutely inundated with people who do not understand the procedures, it is a disaster for high-volume courts, because an inordinate amount of their clerks' time is spent trying to make sure that the procedures are correctly followed. In California many Courts offer self-help Web sites or desks at court offices that offer standard legal forms for such things as simple divorces. In some Courts, volunteer lawyers are made available to give legal advice to those who cannot afford an attorney. The legal profession may not like the trend but realizes it is here to stay, and has gotten behind the effort. The American Bar Association is encouraging states to set up self-help desks and adopt standard forms. Also, a majority of states have amended their attorney ethics rules to promote a growing practice known as "unbundling," (also known as "Limited Scope Representation") in which a lawyer handles just part of a contract, lawsuit, divorce or other litigation for a small fee, rather than taking on the entire case. The ethics rules have been changed to make it clear that lawyers can do this without being held responsible for the entire case. That can ease their fears of being sued for malpractice. If you choose to handle your case this way, remember that communication and teamwork is the key to success in limited scope representation cases. You must make sure to discuss your legal matter with the attorney in detail and ask questions about issues that are not clear to you. Remember that you and your attorney must have a clear understanding of each others' assignments. The benefit to you is that you can use your litigation budget best by doing the simpler parts of the case yourself and focusing the attorney's time on the complicated tasks that you do not think you can do effectively yourself. This way you keep greater control of your case than if the attorney was handling the entire case. Remember that the attorney has had the education and experience to work on the more technical parts of your case, guide you throughout the court process, and spot important legal issues that you may not see on your own. There are special forms and service contracts that have to be used by you and your attorney when you agree to limited scope representation. You can always agree to increase or change the scope of representation between the two of you at any time. A special notice has to be filed in the case to inform the court and the other party of the limited scope representation if the attorney is going to appear in the case for you [Form FL-950, Notice of Limited Scope Representation]. To find a lawyer who is willing to help you in a limited scope manner, you may contact the Lawyer Referral Service. If you already know a lawyer that you would like to hire, ask him/her about a limited scope representation arrangement. The purpose of this column is to provide general information on the law, which is subject to change. It is not legal advice. Consult a lawyer if you have a specific legal problem. ********** Published: March 6, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 46