In recent years, new ways to access and finance legal services have emerged — some of which can be a boon to clients and practitioners alike. Below are a few of the more significant trends.
LIMITED SCOPE REPRESENTATION
Traditionally when an attorney takes a case, the representation is all-inclusive, from motion practice to discovery to trial. But if a prospective client cannot afford the attorney’s retainer or hourly rates on an ongoing basis, the representation never begins.
With limited scope representation (also called unbundled legal services), the lawyer and client agree in advance to representation that covers discrete aspects of the matter — such as the initial demand letter, drafting the complaint or appearing at a key hearing — for what’s usually a flat fee. If subsequent or broader representation is desired, they enter a new agreement.
The obvious advantage for clients is that partial representation is better than no representation at all. They can at least get help with the parts that they can afford and that matter most to them. The benefit to lawyers is the ability to attract a broader pool of clients and matters. The potential drawback is that not all jurisdictions have made it explicit that limited scope representation comports with their rules on attorney withdrawal. The industry would benefit from more clarity and uniformity in this regard.
The obvious advantage for clients is that partial representation is better than no representation at all.
VIRTUAL LAW PRACTICE
According to the American Bar Association TechReport, only 1 in 20 lawyers considered their practices “virtual” in 2016. In part, this may be an issue of semantics: As more communications occur electronically, the line between a virtual and “regular” law practice blurs. But there are some features that most agree are central to virtual law practice. They include:
Reduced reliance on physical office space: For lawyers, this promotes lower overhead, flexible scheduling and marketing to clients in a broader geographic region. For clients, it means not having to incur the time, expense and hassle of office visits.
Online forms: An estate planner, say, can have clients fill out a form that generates a template will, which the lawyer can further customize based on a client call. This reduces live consultation time, saving clients money and increasing lawyer efficiency.
Cloud-based technology: Lawyers increasingly rely on secure client portals, including cloud-based platforms, to share and edit documents. This lets them work from anywhere and avoids the need to maintain and secure expensive servers. Clients generally appreciate the convenience and flexibility.
The first legal incubator was founded a decade ago, but now there are more than 60 in 30 states, as well as at least four foreign programs. Just as business incubators help new startups launch their companies, legal incubators help solo practitioners launch their own practices. They typically offer legal mentoring, business training and free or discounted office space, legal research software, or other resources.
Whereas universities or third parties fund startups in the hopes of getting a return on investment, most legal incubators seek to help attorneys lower their overhead. That way, they can better afford to offer reduced rates to modest-means clients — so-called “low bono” representation.
Incubators encourage newer attorneys to tap into the middle market — clients who might otherwise forgo representation altogether — rather than compete directly with more seasoned attorneys who can attract and retain clients willing to pay prevailing hourly rates of $300 and up. This is a win-win for lawyers and society.
Recently, my own institution became the first online law school to participate in a legal incubator, using technology to address not only cost but also geographical barriers to access to justice. The endeavor is essentially a merger of features of virtual law practice with the low bono aspects of the incubator movement.
LEGAL SOFTWARE AND SERVICE PLANS
A big name in legal technology is obviously LegalZoom, but the big story with LegalZoom is not its software that can automatically generate legal documents or business forms. Rather, it is that the company offers prepaid legal plans that cover a certain number of live attorney consultation sessions.
The question for the legal industry is whether the prepaid legal plan, or some other form of legal insurance, will become the dominant model of legal services delivery. Thousands of companies offer employer-sponsored legal insurance plans, and the ubiquitous employer-based model for health insurance may one day be commonplace in law as well.
These possibilities may be terrifying or a breath of fresh air, depending on one’s perspective. But one thing is clear: the status quo in law practice will soon be a thing of the past.