Limited-Scope Representation

Limited-scope representation is when you and a lawyer agree that the lawyer will handle some parts of your case and you will handle others. This is different from more traditional arrangements between lawyers and clients where a lawyer is hired to provide legal services on all aspects of a case, from start to finish. Limited-scope representation is sometimes called “unbundling” or “discrete task representation.”

Here are some examples of limited-scope arrangements:

  • You can just consult a lawyer and get legal information and advice about your case when you need it.
  • You can hire the lawyer to represent you on certain issues in your case (like child support or custody) while you do the rest yourself.
  • You can hire the lawyer to prepare the forms and other court documentats but file them yourself and represent yourself at the hearings.
  • You can hire the lawyer to coach you on how to represent yourself at the court hearings and help you prepare the evidence that you will present in court.
  • You can hire the lawyer to help you with the more complicated parts of your case, such as discovery and legal research while you do the simpler tasks yourself.

When you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer to handle your entire case, limited-scope representation can be a great way for you to have legal help with your case while keeping costs down. Courts approve of limited-scope representation because they want to encourage people to get as much legal assistance as they need to protect their rights. They know that you will do a better job of following proper court procedures and presenting the important information to them if you have the help of a lawyer during the more complicated parts of a case.

Limited-scope representation may be somewhat new in some counties, and some courts and lawyers may not be very familiar with it. But more and more lawyers are willing to take on limited-scope cases and more judges are becoming familiar with these arrangements. You can contact your local lawyer referral service to find out where you can find a lawyer who will provide unbundled services. When you do speak with a lawyer and you want limited representation, make sure that you are clear about what you want; that you do not want to hire the lawyer to handle the entire case.

Deciding if limited-scope representation is right for you

When trying to decide if a limited-scope arrangement is right for you, you should:

  • Discuss your case with a lawyer in depth, including areas that you want to handle yourself. If you do not discuss the whole case with the lawyer, even the parts that you think are simple and want to handle yourself, you will not know if you have overlooked something that is legally important. Once you have had this discussion, you and the lawyer can agree on whether a limited-scope arrangement will work for you and your case and you can be comfortable that you have identified any hidden complications.
  • Decide if you are willing to take on full responsibility for those parts of the case you will handle on your own. Remember that the lawyer went to law school and probably has years of experience in this area.  That means that he or she will know things you do not about the legal process. If you instruct your lawyer not to take certain steps, either to save money or because you want to remain in control, you will have the full responsibility for the outcome in the parts of the case you do yourself, even with a lawyer coaching you.

Get help deciding if limited-scope representation is a good idea for a child support case.

Get help deciding if limited-scope representation is a good idea for a child custody case.

Get help deciding if limited-scope representation is a good idea for divorce or separation cases involving the division of property.

Limited-scope representation vs. full representation
There are many benefits to limited-scope representation over full representation:

  • By only paying a lawyer to do those parts of your case that you cannot do yourself, you can save you money on legal fees.
  • The lawyer can use his or her time more efficiently by focusing that time on things you cannot effectively do yourself and leaving other more time-consuming tasks to you.
  • You can keep greater control of your case than if the lawyer handles the entire case.

But, there are many times when limited-scope may not be a good choice, like when:

  • Your case has a lot of technical issues or is very time-sensitive. You can read about some of these cases by clicking “Types of cases where lawyers are necessary”.
  • You do not have the time to put into educating yourself and effectively handling many of the tasks that you need to do.
  • There is a lot of stake in your case, so if you lose, you could lose your home, lose rights to see your children, or owe a lot of money.

Limited-scope representation vs. representing yourself
Limited-scope representation can often also be a better alternative than representing yourself:

  • Having a lawyer helping you with parts of your case can save you a lot of time and energy because the lawyer can educate you about the process and your specific issues. He or she can also help you find self-help books and other resources so you can handle the parts of the case when you are on your own.
  • A lawyer, by being more removed from your case than you are, can see things about your case that you cannot. A lawyer can help you focus on the legal issues and on what the court can do for you, and not let yourself be distracted by other issues and emotions.
  • A lawyer can identify potential problems or hidden complications early on, so you can avoid making a costly mistake.

Working with a limited-scope lawyer

You and the lawyer should have an in-depth discussion about all the aspects of your case, and agree on your respective responsibilities.

Some of the issues you need to work out with the lawyer are:

  • Who will decide on the strategy?
  • Who will gather what information?
  • Who will prepare the information for the court?
  • Who will draft documents for the court?
  • Who will appear at court proceedings and settlement conferences?
  • Who will negotiate with the other side?

In making decisions about these issues, remember that the lawyer has the education and experience to work on the more technical parts of your case, guide you throughout the court process, and spot important legal issues that you may not see on your own.

You and the limited-scope lawyer will be working as a team, but it is your case. If you and the lawyer cannot agree on who should take on which parts of the case, or on decisions that need to be made in your case, you should listen to what the lawyer says.  If the lawyer feels strongly that the course you want to take is not in your best interests, listen carefully to the reasons why he or she is recommending you do something differently.

But, in the end, it is your case, your decision and your responsibility. You have the right to disregard the lawyer’s advice, but if the case does not turn out the way you hoped, you have to be willing to accept the responsibility for your decision.

The lawyer will likely tell you where to look to find tools to help you assist in your own representation. There are many good resources out there, including this Online Self-Help Center, help from your court, your court’s website, your local public law library, and others.

Court forms and contracts in limited-scope cases

There are special forms and service contracts that you and your limited-scope lawyer have to use when you agree to limited-scope representation.

Lawyer contract
First, make sure your contract with the limited-scope lawyer is very clear, and that every detail you discussed in terms of handling the case is in writing. If anything changes, you can always agree to increase or change the scope of representation between the 2 of you at a later time.
 
Your contract should be very clear on what the lawyer will and will not be doing, as well as what you, the client, will be doing. The contract should also clearly specify how you will be charged and your fee arrangement. The clearer you are, the more likely you are to avoid any misunderstandings.
 
Before you sign, make sure you understand everything in the agreement and the risks of limited-scope representation.

Court forms
A special notice has to be filed in your court case to inform the court and the other side of the limited-scope representation if the lawyer is going to appear in the case for you.

In family law cases, the lawyer will need to file the Notice of Limited Scope Representation (Form FL-950).

In a civil case, the lawyer will need to file the Notice of Limited Scope Representation (Form MC-955).

When the lawyer has finished with the part of the case agreed to, make sure to sign and file the Substitution of Attorney-Civil (Form MC-050).

Finding a limited-scope lawyer

In some counties, the lawyer referral service has “unbundled” panels, also called “modest means” panels or “limited scope” panels. These panels are limited to lawyers who have had specialized training in helping people represent themselves, and who are willing to offer this service. Even if your county does not have a specific panel of limited-scope lawyers, the lawyer referral service can help you find a lawyer who is willing to help you in a limited-scope manner. Find your local lawyer referral service.
 
Also, if you already know a lawyer that you would like to hire, ask him or her about a limited-scope representation arrangement.

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