Limited scope representation is new paradigm for future practice of law

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Shortage of attorneys aware of limited scope representation is a challenge across the state

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Although limited scope representation (LSR) is unlikely to replace traditional full-scope practice any time in the near future, it is increasingly an option that is appealing to both attorneys and clients.

“Limited scope representation allows lawyers to take on parts of a case or help with a case without taking on full representation,” explains Executive Director Deborah Hughes of the Kent County Legal Assistance Center.  “Full representation is challenging for many [clients] both because it is expensive based on hourly rates and retainers, but also because the total cost is unknowable. It can depend on what is in dispute, who represents the other side, the possibility of settlement and the risk of trial. With limited scope, a lawyer and client can work out what each of them will do and what the costs will be. Everything is on the table so the prospective client can make an informed choice about what legal services they need and can afford.”

Hughes, who was one of the presenters at a State Bar of Michigan (SBM) session on LSR at its annual meeting in 2018, adds, “[LAC]... informally [educates] people about how to work with an attorney and how to ask clearly for the services they need and want, such as advice only. But we are challenged without knowing there is a pool of limited scope attorneys ready to help... Our wish list at the LAC would be to have enough limited scope attorneys in West Michigan to offer a limited scope referral list.”

The lack of attorneys aware of and willing to practice LSR is a problem throughout the state. That is why Michigan Legal Help (MLH), the agency that manages the state legal self-help program operating through the website www.michiganlegalhelp.org, is encouraging attorneys to consider adding LSR to their toolkit for assisting clients.

Court rules for LSR became effective Jan. 1, 2018, but lawyers have so far not responded in large numbers, which may reflect the fact that there is currently no official way to track LSR practice.
In the meantime, even after limited campaigns to raise awareness, the public is expressing a lot of interest in LSR.

The SBM Lawyer Referral Service reports 25-30 callers per week seeking a limited scope attorney, and about 200 visitors a week read the MLH website’s LSR educational materials. Seeing that need, MLH and the SBM are reaching out to lawyers with the idea that LSR represents a win-win for both sides of the attorney-client relationship.

MLH Director Angela Tripp says her staff is currently embedding references to LSR throughout their online materials  – for example, when visitors to michiganlegalhelp.com want to represent themselves in a divorce but may come upon a single issue that requires a lawyer’s assistance, the site will  make clear that Michigan law allows them to use attorney services for just that issue.

Tripp adds, “Limited scope is something we’ve been talking about for years on the State Bar’s Affordable Legal Services Committee and elsewhere. It’s great for people who can’t afford full service representation but it’s also great for attorneys. The market is there; the clients are there looking for it. It is a change, but it could be a really fruitful change.”

Stated differently, as MLH has done in the past, “When you provide limited scope legal services, you help people with limited funds get strategic, targeted legal help while you engage in an innovative way to build a practice and increase business.”

As Tripp pointed out, LSR has been under discussion in the Michigan legal community at least since the State Bar convened a Solutions to Self Help Task Force in 2010. Later, the comprehensive 21st Century Practice Task Force, co-chaired by Bruce Courtade of Rhoades-McKee and Julie Fershtman of Foster Swift, recommended “[i]mplementing a high-quality, comprehensive, limited scope representation system, including guidelines, attorney and client education, rules and commentary, and court forms focusing on civil cases.”

SBM also hosted a committee that advised on the court rules, which the Michigan Supreme Court adopted in Sept. 2017.

Though LSR, sometimes called “unbundling,” can include advice, coaching, developing an overall legal strategy, or performing one or more boundaried tasks, the rules (MCR 2.107, 2.117, and 6.001 and MRPC 1.0, 1.2, 4.2, and 4.3.10) primarily focus on two aspects: ghostwriting and making a limited appearance.

Naturally, ethics are of paramount concern, and the SBM work group developing the rules asked for a written ethics opinion. It states that an attorney providing a “properly informed” client with limited scope services “...retains all of the professional responsibility that would exist in the case of ordinary services.” Guided by American Bar Association ethics, the work group also made sure to involve ethicists directly in the rule development.

Attorney Mechelle Woznicki is a Portage attorney who also sat on that work group. She has developed a practice that incorporates LSR in a simple and direct fashion.

“Every lead that I get is given options for representation. I listen to their story... Then I explain how my firm is different than most law firms in that I offer a variety of options for all budgets. I explain the pros and cons of LSR and when it makes sense and when it doesn’t.  Then I explain how we can collaborate on their case, working together as a team, each doing our part to finalize their case,” she says.

“I really believe that LSR, flat fees and other non-traditional approaches to providing legal services are the future,” adds Woznicki, who was the recent focus of an article in the State Bar Journal (9/2019) both because of her commitment to LSR and because she uses LEAN business principles in her practice.

Another attorney who offers limited scope services is Rebecca Tooman, whose Innovative Law Services office is in Novi.

Noting that LSR coordinates well with the types of practice she was already  doing, Tooman says, “There was a time not that long ago when we as lawyers would have been general practitioners and have to do everything in different areas of the law, and I relate it to that, to figuring out what you can do to help the clients best with what they can afford.”

Tooman was on another SBM task force that advocated for court adoption of MCR 3.223 Joint Petition for Divorce, which allows what would have formerly been a plaintiff and a defendant to file a petition agreement together for a “more family-friendly divorce process.”

Calling that “one of the best tools I have in limited scope,” Tooman adds, “I presented recently for the Family Law Institute about ‘learning to love limited scope representation,’ and that’s how I feel about it. I had a case recently where after we presented the petition, the wife gave me the biggest hug, and when I went to shake the husband’s hand, he did too. They both left happy, and the court personnel like it too.”

Though the main deterrent to others adopting LSR is probably its newness, Hughes, who along with Tripp is still a member of the SBM Committee on Affordable Legal Services, has additional ideas. “It calls for a new way of thinking, a new way of working, and a new kind of client relationship – I would say, a culture change,” she explains.  “But there are many examples from other parts of the country about lawyers developing thriving practices based on just limited scope work.”

Those who want to get started on LSR may visit the SBM Practice Management site for a convenient toolkit at https://www.michbar.org/pmrc/limited-scope. There is a free Institute for Continuing Legal Education on-demand webinar link among many other resources.

MLH and SBM brochures tell potential LSR clients to search the SBM Member Directory, so adding a bio to that directory listing that includes the term “limited scope” will help clients search. To edit or create a biography,  click “Manage address, profile, preferences and passwords” in the SBM member area, then go to the section labeled “Expanded Profile” and click “Edit Expanded Profile.” It is also possible to sign up as a limited scope attorney on the Lawyer Referral Service portal.

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