‘There are lots of ways to assist clients on a limited scope basis’
ALLISON L. MARSHALL was admitted to practice in 2005.
After a two-and-a-half-year judicial clerkship, she opened
her own solo law firm focusing on family law.
In 2011, she co-founded LEGALnudge.
JENNA C. WESTBY was admitted to the
Minnesota bar in 2006. She has practiced
exclusively in the area of family law.
Jenna also serves as a Judge Advocate for
the United States Army Reserve.
How would you describe your firm’s practice?
LEGALnudge, LLC represents clients in family law matters throughout Minnesota. We provide both full representation and limited scope legal services to clients in family law cases. And we offer a sliding fee scale as well as flat-fee payment options. The full representation is what most family law attorneys and clients would consider to be traditional representation—managing the case throughout. Limited scope can include assistance with self-help paperwork, court appearances, attendance at mediation, drafting or just consulting.
Our fee arrangements are income-based and we often work with clients to focus their resources on the issue or issues on which they need the most assistance. Flat-fee agreements can be a great arrangement for cases that are especially litigious or for clients who want certainty with their legal fees.
What factors led you to offer these arrangements?
We both understood that there was a gap in legal services—between those individuals who qualified for legal aid/pro bono services and those who could not afford most private law firms—that needed to be filled. A large number of family law cases have at least one, if not both, parties that are self-represented. People choose this path for a number of reasons, but cost is usually a primary reason. We thought, what if litigants could get effective legal assistance that would make the process of representing themselves easier and give them peace of mind? That was the question we wanted to answer. We provide the whole range of services, but often we give people that little nudge they need to effectively resolve their matter. Many clients only want or need brief legal advice or review of documents. Others desire full representation. We wanted to make family law advice and representation accessible to a wider range of clients.
How do you determine the particular type of arrangement you offer a client?
During the initial phone call we generally explain the different representation options to clients and present the option of an initial consultation. If we believe there are more appropriate or affordable services for the person calling, we may refer them out. There are so many great resources out there that a lot of potential clients and even attorneys don’t know about. However, if he or she wants to meet with us, we begin our process with an initial consultation. During the consultation we are better able to gauge what the person needs. At this point we work with the client to determine what type of representation best suits their situation. It is important that the type and scope of representation are clear to both the attorney and client.
Generally we are able to offer limited scope, full representation, flat fee, or hourly services to most clients. There are some types of cases that lend themselves better to limited scope services. For example, it is more difficult to provide limited scope services in cases where the judicial branch does not provide
forms for self-represented parties. We also decline to offer limited scope services to individuals who we believe may not understand the nature of limited scope legal representation.
What types of service do you offer as unbundled or limited scope?
There are lots of ways to assist clients on a limited scope basis, so we can get creative. We can do limited court appearances, attend mediation with a client, prepare a client for court, assist with self-help forms, consult through a dissolution, advise on child support hearings in front of a magistrate, consult on appeals, or even limit the scope to a period of time—for example, representation from case inception through an Initial Case Management Conference. We can also change between limited scope and full representation if the client’s needs evolve. We always execute new representation agreements when this happens so everyone is clear about what the representation will be going forward.
What ethical rules guide your limited scope practice?
It is important to be clear with clients what services we are providing and what we are not doing. If everyone knows who is doing what, the case can be effectively managed. We are diligent in keeping fee agreements in line with the Minnesota Rules of Professional Responsibility so that clients are aware of their rights regarding representation and fees.
How does your limited scope fee agreement reflect ethical considerations?
We use the required language prescribed by the rules and LPRB opinions on the issue. We make sure that our agreements, especially if limited in scope, are very specific as to what we will do and even what we will not do for the client. If we have a disagreement about whether the agreement covers the specific issue or not, we err on the side of the client’s interpretation. In the end, it is also a good business decision to keep a client happy and we simply learn to draft clearer representation agreements in the future. This is rarely an issue, however.
Are there any services that you choose not to offer as unbundled? Why is that?
It is important that the client know that the services are limited. Clients who do not understand that they are responsible for parts of their case are not good candidates for limited scope services.
In addition, limiting the scope of representation to a certain issue—for example, handling only the custody component of a divorce—is confusing. If we are going to be putting ourselves out there as the client’s attorney for a limited purpose, it is much better to be limited scope for a fixed duration of time or a specific event such as a court hearing or mediation as opposed to an issue. That just confuses everyone—
the other attorney or party, the judge, the mediator, the client. It doesn’t make sense for us.
But we may consult on just some issues, if that is the only part of the case the client needs assistance with. The limits really come into play when we are representing the client to others in court, negotiations, or other proceedings.
How do clients react to the choice of unbundled service?
Mostly clients are surprised and relieved to find that we offer different types of representation options. They may have spoken with other attorneys who quote high retainer amounts and hourly rates; we offer them a more affordable alternative. Clients are empowered by the variety of legal services offered. Having clients choose where to spend their money on legal advice and representation often creates a positive relationship. We discuss what financial resources are available to the client and where the attorney can focus representation to be a value-add to the client.
How do judicial officers react when you appear in court on a limited scope basis for a client?
We have never had a judicial officer view a limited scope appearance as a negative event. In fact, our experience is quite the opposite. Judicial officers are very supportive of a litigant getting legal help even on a limited scope basis, so that they can be assured the party understands the process.
In our experience, judicial officers are grateful that clients have the ability to get questions answered, receive legal advice, and have documents reviewed during their case. For some cases, reviewing the self-help paperwork will catch an error that would otherwise take the judicial officer an entire hearing to resolve or require additional court appearances. Getting these issues resolved before pleadings are submitted saves the client’s time in court as well as judicial resources.
Are there any significant experiences that guide your unbundled practice?
For both of us, clerking for the court had a huge impact on our view of family law. We were able to see the need for an alternative approach to family law and a client base that was vastly underserved. Like most attorneys, we both view being an attorney as a calling and we want to use our education and experience to help people in this critical time as well as address the financial limitations many people face in litigation.
Our practice is constantly evolving. A potential client will ask about a type of representation or division of labor that we had not previously considered. This is one thing that makes LEGALnudge unique: We get to work directly with the client to be creative and structure the representation on an individual basis. Our flat-fee representation agreements have evolved as well.
How do the services you offer affect your business model?
As a business we run lean and make every effort to keep our overhead low. This allows for us to continue be flexible with clients on their representation options. We have maintained a successful practice for the past five years and we continue to grow every year.
What particular measures do you take to keep your business costs low?
Our office space is affordable and welcoming. It isn’t fancy and we don’t want it to be, but we do want our clients to be comfortable and secure when we meet with them. We work together really well as a team and we are constantly looking at our approach to both the business and representation in order to be efficient and successful.
Do you have any advice for an attorney who would like to start offering unbundled services?
If you are interested in offering unbundled services, flat fees, or other alternative legal representation, it is important to review all the applicable rules of professional responsibility and ensure the client is fully informed. Clients who do not understand the division of labor or fee arrangement are not a good fit for unbundled services.
Also, know what your limits are with regard to your own practice. What is comfortable for one attorney to offer on an unbundled basis may not be comfortable for another attorney. This is an important consideration in taking on any limited scope clients.
And finally, we have to ask: how did you choose the name LEGALnudge for your firm?
Whether you love it or hate it, it’s memorable! We wanted a name that suited the practice and indicated we were different from firms that offer only full representation on an hourly basis—yet also not a nonprofit. Many of our clients only need a “nudge” in the right direction to be successful in their case. That’s our goal, to nudge people in the right direction so they can resolve their legal matter affordably and with peace of mind.