The legal profession is modernizing, and legal tech is booming. One of the biggest changes in the past few years is the increased availability of unbundled legal services. Check out our list of everything you need to know about becoming an unbundled attorney before you get left behind by the competition.
If you have changed your cable subscription or cell phone provider in the past ten years, you have certainly heard of the term "unbundled services." As this trend gained popularity, it spread to other industries, and now it is on the doorstep of the legal profession. The general public wants better access to legal services, and one of the best ways to do that is to be an early adopter of the unbundled legal services movement.
Unbundled legal services are... no, wait, let's back up. Before we can understand what these services are, we need to first understand the opposite: full-service representation.
This is the traditional model of the legal industry where a client retains an attorney to "handle their case," meaning the attorney provides all the services required to reach the client's goal.
It includes everything from administrative tasks (calling the court to confirm a court date) to providing legitimate legal advice (performing legal research, drafting pleadings, and appearing in court) to everything in between.
Since full-service legal representation includes an unpredictable set of tasks, attorneys usually bill by the hour, and the costs can be prohibitive.
When an attorney offers unbundled services, he or she is breaking down the tasks offered in full-service representation to provide a limited scope of legal services.
The truth is that while this movement is gaining momentum in the legal industry, most attorneys and industries have offered unbundled services all along without realizing it. For example, if you charge separately for legal consults, you have offered the unbundled service of reviewing and analyzing a potential client's case to determine whether they would benefit from further legal services.
Now that you know what it is, let's see how unbundled services can be applied to the practice of law.
The easiest way to think about unbundled legal services is to consider how we already limit the scope of our practice. Examples include:
The point here is that offering unbundled legal services does not have to mean a huge change for your practice, and it can provide substantial benefits.
Client expectations are changing rapidly. After the legal tech boom and the pandemic, clients know that technological advances are making certain full-service legal tasks redundant.
It is important to remember that this model is not about replacing law firms or full legal services. It is about giving clients more choices for how they want to be represented.
Some clients will still need and want full-service representation, but others will prefer the unbundled legal services model. Law firms that offer these choices will have a competitive advantage.
One of the primary benefits of the unbundled legal services movement is to increase access to justice. When you break down the tasks associated with full-scope representation, it makes legal services more predictable, affordable, and accessible to a wider range of people.
This does not mean you have to offer the lowest price for legal services. When clients know the upfront cost before choosing which legal services they want, they can make choices based on their budget. Sometimes it's the threat of having to write a blank check to their attorney that prevents people from being able to afford legal representation.
The unbundled legal services model is also beneficial for attorneys. When you break down the tasks associated with full-service representation, it allows you to be more efficient in your use of time. This leads to increased predictability over your schedule and, ideally, a better work-life balance.
When lawyers believe their clients want the full suite of legal service representation, but their clients actually want unbundled options, a law firm's financial health can suffer. This is evident in the firm's key performance indicators. Here are some signs that your clients might actually prefer a less robust form of legal representation:
This can cause write-offs and issues with late payments, driving your billing realization rate down.
When this happens, you are spending too much time on non-billable work, so you utilization rate is low.
This one is self-explanatory. If your clients are asking for a specific type of service, they may eventually find that service elsewhere.
While this could be a result of numerous other issues such as staffing or time-management, it can be another indicator that you (or your team) have too much non-billable work, or that your scope of legal services is too broad.
Another indicator of too much non-billable work and scope-creep.
You don't have to make drastic changes to your law firm model in order to offer à la carte services. Use the steps below to identify one or two services for your practice to start with.
While unbundled legal services are gaining momentum right now, they have been around for a while.
This is good news, because many states have now issued formal guidance on how and when an attorney can provide a limited scope of representation.
Check out the American Bar Association's list of unbundling resources, organized by state.
The first step of unbundling legal services is to understand the steps involved in your current full-scope services. Take a minute to think through the following (or write them down if that helps).
For an example, we can use something most people will have to deal with at some point in their life: probating a will.
On the attorney's side, full representation for an uncontested will might include an initial review of the facts, review of the decedent's estate plan, a search for heirs and assets, filing a petition to probate the will, advising the personal representative on how to pay debts of the estate and distribute assets, and closing the estate. These are the mile-markers.
However, many clients can handle some of these services on their own for an uncontested will. For example, they might need legal guidance on filling out the petition and court procedures, can distribute the assets and even appear in court on their own. Filling out the petition is the perfect opportunity for unbundling legal services.
The engagement agreement might state that the limited scope of service includes:
The engagement agreement should also limit common forms of "scope creep" with terms like capping how many times you will revise a document after the initial draft, and allowing the attorney to charge extra if the client fails to provide the requested intake information in a timely manner.
After this, you have a solid outline for the type and scope of unbundled service that you can provide.
There are numerous methods to help minimize scope creep and maximize your efficiency when providing limited scope representation. Here are a few of our favorites:
Secure client portals allow your clients to access their documents whenever they want, or to communicate with your office confidentially. Practice management software often includes client portals, but you can also look for stand-alone portals like Clinked.
When you offer limited scope representation, it becomes easier to focus on your methods and procedures. If you notice repetitive tasks, you can start to automate those to increase efficiency and accuracy.
Tools like Text Expander, Documate, and DocStyle can automate your typing, document drafting, and document formatting. Practice management software can automate your tasks assignments and create workflows.
Delegate tasks that are hindering you from focusing on your client matters and providing legal advice.
Services like Front allow you to delegate emails to your team. This is an excellent option if you feel like email controls your daily schedule.
Virtual receptionist services like Smith.ai and Abby Connect allow you to screen calls (no more unwanted sales pitches) and create call-forwarding rules. They can also provide phone messages via email or slack, or even conduct client intake for you.
With the tools available today, lawyers can take their unbundled service(s) and turn them into automated legal products by creating an automated website or app (like their very own LegalZoom).
Building legal products can be done by standardizing client deliverables, usually through document automation, chatbots, or "robot lawyers", allowing those deliverables to be scaled, marketed, and sold like products.
Offering legal products is a great way for lawyers to increase access to justice, make passive income, and get client leads.
It has also never been easier to create a legal product, thanks to no-code automation tools. You no longer need to hire a developer or spend months to create a single automation. If you are reading this article and can use a web browser, you have the skills to create a legal product through document automation.
Hello Divorce is a successful legal app that allows people to prepare and file uncontested divorce forms online (and it was built on Documate!). If their users end up needed more complex legal advice, Hello Divorce will connect them to an attorney for a consult
(a "service upsell").
Not only are more clients able to obtain affordable legal assistance, but Hello Divorce is also thriving and serving as the example of a new revenue model.
If you want to learn more about how to build legal products, check out our Ultimate Guide on How to Build Legal Products.
Form automation refers to software or web-based applications that allow small law firms, solo practitioners, and their clients to process and finalize all types of legal documents, from court documents to contracts to transactional filings.
Learn how to build a custom website for your document automation legal app
We're experts in law firm document automation. In this guide, we've gathered everything lawyers need to know to start using legal document automation software. Learn more about the benefits of automating the document drafting process, features you should look for, and tips to get started.
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