In the last decade, a number of practitioners, bar associations and courts have been experimenting with models of legal practice that permit attorneys to provide a la carte services to clients who want or need to limit their expenditures and are able to effectively handle the other aspects of their case on their own. The terms “unbundling”, “discrete task representation”, and “limited-scope representation” have been used to describe these practice models.
Limited-scope representation is an alternative mechanism for delivering high-quality legal services to well-prepared clients. The client and the lawyer together decide which tasks would be most appropriate for the lawyer to perform, and which the client will handle. They enter into a carefully-drafted retainer agreement through which the client engages the attorney to handle one or more discrete aspects of their case. The client may elect to engage the attorney to prepare court documents only; or the client may prefer to prepare their own pleadings using court forms, to engage the attorney to coach them prior to mediation or trial, or, where permitted, to make a limited appearance on their behalf at a court proceeding. Clients may choose limited-scope representation for a variety of reasons. Some clients may be unable to afford full representation; others may simply be worried that they cannot evaluate the full cost of representation at the outset and want to limit the costs. Other clients may want to retain control over the process or may want direct access to the courts and the litigation process.
A recent paper published by the Maryland Access to Justice Commission urges the courts, bar associations and others to support limited scope representation in Maryland as a way to help lawyers provide their services to a broader range of clients. The white paper, entitled “Limited Scope Representation in Maryland”, was included as an Appendix to the Commission’s Interim Report, released in November 2009. In it, the Commission suggests that limited-scope practice allows attorneys to take advantage of the “latent legal market” made up of those individuals who have a legal need, but are reluctant to seek help because of fiscal constraints or a desire to more directly control the process.
The Commission was created in 2008 by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Maryland Court of Appeals, to develop, coordinate and implement policy initiatives to expand access to the state’s civil justice system. The Commission brings together a variety of leaders and stakeholders from the Maryland Judiciary and its justice system partners, including members of the legal services community, the Maryland State Bar Association, the Executive and Legislative branches and the Governor’s Office. The Commission is chaired by retired Judge Irma S. Raker of the Maryland Court of Appeals. Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn of the District Court of Maryland serves as the Commission’s vice-chair.
The Commission notes that, as in all professional relationships, limited-scope representation works best when it is founded on clear and effective communication between the lawyer and the client:
“An attorney who offers limited services to his or her clients, will need to clearly define the relationship in a limited scope retainer agreement, and will need to provide a la carte pricing so that the client can make effective decisions about when and how to engage the attorney.” [Maryland Access to Justice Commission, Interim Report & Recommendations (Fall 2009), 74-75.]
The Commission concludes that there is a favorable Rules climate supporting limited-scope practice in the State. Limited-scope practice is clearly envisioned by the revisions made to Maryland Rule of Professional Responsibility 1.2 and the adoption of Rule 6.5. The Commission urges the State to consider other rule changes to further support and clarify the practice. These might include rules to permit limited court appearances, and to clarify issues related to the withdrawal or termination of limited representation, client communications and ghostwriting.
As the Commission notes, “Limited scope representation can provide an opportunity for lawyers to expand their practice and provide assistance to those who might otherwise never seek their aid.” Interim Report, 83.
The Commission’s report, including the white paper, may be found at www.mdcourts.gov/mdatjc.