MIAMI — The traditional way of billing for legal services may not be working for the growing number of people who would rather represent themselves in state courthouses across the country because the cost of retaining a lawyer is too high.
At the same time, state and national bar associations see the answer in another trend: Unbundled or a la carte legal services are viewed as a viable way to reduce costs on individuals. Self-represented litigants can then pick and choose which services they engage a lawyer for. But individuals aren’t the only ones to gain from unbundled services.
James Jones Jr., a Florida attorney witnessing firsthand the number of people who represent themselves in court, saw a way to fix two problems with one solution. He co-founded Court Buddy in 2015 as an online platform to match prospective clients with attorneys offering a la carte legal services. Most of his attorney members are on their own or working for small firms — many of whom struggle to find new clients and “are not the best at marketing,” Jones told the Florida Record.
In launching Court Buddy, Jones said he envisioned a way to make a real, positive impact on the legal industry by saving people thousands of dollars on quality legal services. Based on his success, he said he believes Court Buddy is doing something right.
“In less than two years, we have matched thousands of consumers and small business owners with top solo attorneys based on their budget across 23 states,” Jones said. “The numbers literally change daily.”
In many state courts, especially high-volume courts like traffic, housing and small claims, most people represent themselves, the American Bar Association’s committee on the delivery of legal services reported. Some states, including Florida, have responded to increasing numbers of pro se litigants by providing resources and facilitators to help individuals navigate paperwork and procedures.
But those services aren’t enough, the committee reported two years ago in a white paper analyzing rules that allow lawyers to help these individuals.
“Even though the courts and the marketplace are providing substantial assistance to self-represented litigants, the scope of this assistance is limited," the ABA analysis said. "Many, if not most, litigants need more than the procedural assistance offered by these resources. They need to know more than which forms to use, how to docket their cases and what time to appear in court. They need assistance with decision-making and judgment. They need to know their options, possible outcomes and the strategies to pursue their objectives. In some cases, self-represented litigants need advocates for some portion of their matter. These services can only come from lawyers.”
Unbundled services — or limited representation, as it’s called in Florida — is seen as a way to improve access to legal services. But not all courts or states are setup to accommodate an attorney’s limited representation of a litigant.
“Until recently, neither the court system nor the legal profession had been fully prepared to embrace a model in which lawyers provide some, but not all, of the services of value to a litigant,” the ABA committee reported.
In Florida, attorneys and their clients may agree to limited representation if it fits the circumstances and if the client gives written permission.
According to Florida Bar rule, circumstances may call for limited representation when a client has limited objectives.
“If, for example, a client’s objective is limited to securing general information about the law the client needs in order to handle a common and typically uncomplicated legal problem, the lawyer and client may agree that the lawyer’s services will be limited to a brief consultation," the rule reads. "Such a limitation, however, would not be reasonable if the time allotted was not sufficient to yield advice upon which the client could rely.”
Besides simply providing information, an attorney can draft pleadings and responses under a limited representation agreement. But if a lawyer helps a self-represented litigant by drafting a document, the document must disclose that it was prepared with an attorney’s assistance.
A rule pending the Florida Supreme Court’s approval would extend an attorney’s limited representation abilities to limited appearances, which are currently allowed in Family Court proceedings.
“Regardless of the services provided, unbundling gives litigants an alternative to either paying a substantial fee for full-service representation or handling the matter on their own,” the Florida Bar’s Access to Legal Services Committee reported in a recommendation for more support for limited representation. “In the context of non-litigation matters, attorneys may already engage in unbundled legal service representation. However, where litigation matters and the attendant court appearances are involved, the present Florida rules need to be modified to recognize the limited scope representation by an attorney representing a litigant for a limited time or for a specified proceeding.”
The Florida Supreme Court is considering rule changes that would expand limited appearances.
The market is difficult for young attorneys because of a long-time mismatch between the number of law school graduates and those who can get a job, Kyle McEntee, an attorney and executive director of Law School Transparency, told the Florida Record. Law School Transparency is a nonprofit group that analyzes legal education issues.
“At some schools, it’s not difficult to find a job," McEntee said. "Florida has a lot of schools that don’t put their graduates in good positions to find jobs because they’re not well regarded."
For the people who don’t land a job through an on-campus interview, it takes pounding the pavement and scrolling through job postings.
While regularly appearing in Florida courts, Jones learned about the number of people who represent themselves on cases either because they can’t afford attorneys or because they can’t find the right one. He also knew of many attorneys frustrated by being unable to find clients who could pay their fees and help them compete in a competitive market. Their trouble wasn’t helped by the number of lawyers admitted to the bar each year without job offers. It meant more attorneys needing creative ways to find work.
Court Buddy uses information such as the type of case and when an individual wants help and where to instantly match them with an available attorney. Jones said he believes offering a la carte legal services keeps costs down and signifies a step away from an outdated billing system. In jurisdictions like Northern California, where Court Buddy recently expanded, the high cost of living puts legal services’ price tag into perspective.
“The cost of living has skyrocketed in Northern California at a faster rate than probably anywhere else in the country," Jones said. "Average home listings are about $1 million now. So imagine being hit with a legal bill that is more than your mortgage or rent, food and utility bills combined. Customers tell us these things and we’ve just responded by expanding our system to provide as much help as we can.”
Jones has more than 600 attorney members, many of whom rely on Court Buddy to market their services to those strapped individuals who need help at court. He’s found that, while unbundled services is still an emerging concept in the legal industry, it’s popular among those attorney members.
“Opinions are coming out in a growing number of jurisdictions that make the offering of unbundled legal services acceptable,” Jones said. “But the legal profession is older and very conservative, with the average age of a lawyer being about 50 years old. I’ve heard stories about some lawyers just learning how emails work, so it will take some time for the legal industry to change the way it delivers legal services. But it will have to change or continue to be disrupted and be forced to change to adapt to new realities.”
This article was updated on Nov. 8, to correct an error in which a section of Florida Bar rules was incorrectly attributed to a statement from a Florida Bar spokesperson.