Guide

Why the modern attorney needs to offer unbundled legal services.

Unbundled vs. Full-Service
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Turn your unbundled service into a legal app
Guide

Why the modern attorney needs to offer unbundled legal services.

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.

Puzzle pieces with one piece out of place

What are unbundled legal services?

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.

Full-Service Legal 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.

Unbundled Legal Services (or Discrete Task Representation)

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.

What do unbundled services look like in practice?

The easiest way to think about unbundled legal services is to consider how we already limit the scope of our practice. Examples include:

Drafting Specific Legal Documents
  • Contracts
  • Purchase and Sale Agreements
  • Leases
  • Business Formations
  • Wills and Trusts
Limiting the Scope of Legal Advice
  • Charing separately for legal consults
  • Outsourcing document review and/or providing those services as a freelance attorney
  • Providing legal advice to clients on limited subject matters and outsourcing the rest to specialized counsel
  • Charging separate legal fees for trials or appeals
  • Hiring co-counsel for their specific expertise

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.

Why should you offer unbundled legal services?

Give your clients something that most other attorneys do not offer: choices.

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.

Improve the access to justice gap.

Graphic of Lady Justice

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.

Gain predictability over your time.

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.

Improve your law firm's key performance indicators (KPIs).

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:

Clients complain about your legal fees.

This can cause write-offs and issues with late payments, driving your billing realization rate down.

Many of your tasks are unrelated to providing legal advice to clients.

When this happens, you are spending too much time on non-billable work, so you utilization rate is low.

Clients have actually asked you to provide limited scope representation.

This one is self-explanatory. If your clients are asking for a specific type of service, they may eventually find that service elsewhere.

You are turning away new clients because you don't have enough time to represent them.

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.

Your law firm's overhead costs are excessive.

Another indicator of too much non-billable work and scope-creep.

How can you start offering unbundled legal services without completely changing your practice?

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.

Always confirm your ethical obligations.

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.

Review the legal services you offer to determine where your clients actually need legal assistance.

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).

  • List your practice areas, and choose one that you would like to unbundle.
  • Within that practice area, what is your most popular legal service (i.e., what are you writing as the description of service in your engagement agreements?).
  • Now list out the major mile-markers (or intermediate goals) during that specific service.
  • Choose one or two of those mile-markers that represent the most pressing legal needs of your clients. Identify what your typical client already understands about their legal matter, and mark those off the list.
  • Write a bullet point list of what this unbundled service would include, using clear, concise terms. You have to set some boundaries to transform these into limited scope services.
  • Write another list of what your unbundled service would not include. How many rounds of revisions do you want to handle? Does your service include court appearances? Limits are a necessary part of unbundled legal services.
  • Look at past bills to see how much time you spent on this part of your legal services in the past, and determine which billing structure you want to use. Flat fees often work great with unbundled services, but you can still bill by the hour.

How does this work in practice? Let's start unbundling.

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:

  • an initial review of the client intake questionnaire (which should include any information you need for the petition) and the Decedent's estate plan documents;
  • drafting of the petition to probate the will; and
  • one round of revisions.

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.

Find the right tools and procedures to implement your unbundled legal services.

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:

Client portals

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.

Automation tools

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.

Delegation tools

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.

There is one more step lawyers can take to level-up their unbundled legal services: the legal app.

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 the perfect example of an experienced attorney using their expertise to create a public-facing legal product.

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.

Want to use document automation to create your own unbundled legal product? Start your free trial or sign up for a demo!

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