More middle income Americans are choosing to handle their legal matters themselves because they cannot afford to hire a traditional attorney. The International Herald Tribune reported this growing trend in an article last week. The downturn of the economy has made the cost of traditional full-service law firms unavailable for many Americans. In order to resolve their legal matters, many middle income individuals are turning to self representation.
What does this mean for the justice system?
The increase in numbers of pro se litigants has begun to burden court administrations on different levels. While court clerks and other assistants are not permitted to provide legal advice to pro se litigants who come to the courthouse seeking free legal guidance, these administrators are obligated to provide pro se litigants with the necessary legal forms and procedures that they will need to proceed with their case. When the instructions on these legal forms are not followed, court administrators must then go through additional work contacting the pro se litigants to rework the legal forms or assist them with scheduling court dates.
Once inside the courtroom, judges are burdened by the increased number of unassisted pro se litigants when they are obliged to provide basic directions to the pro se litigants regarding standard courtroom procedures. Attorneys who find themselves standing opposite a pro se litigant when presenting a matter to the court must exercise patience. They may find themselves rewording their statements so that the pro se litigant will understand the issues. Overall, the case may take more time and become more expensive than it would have been if handled by legal professionals.
Unbundling Legal Services Provides A Practical Solution
There is a high demand for affordable and accessible legal services to fill in the gap between full, traditional legal representation and unassisted, pro se representation. Unbundled legal services may provide individuals with an affordable option. By retaining an attorney for assistance in filling out legal forms and for basic guidance on the legal process, the individual who would otherwise be a pro se litigant is assisted to the level where he or she is not as much of a burden on the court administration and other legal professionals he or she encounters in the legal system.
Many Americans who are searching for an affordable solution to legal services are turning to online companies like LegalZoom for form-generated legal documents. However, these legal documents and kits for sale are not actually reviewed by an attorney nor is the individual legal situation of the online consumer evaluated by a legal professional before he or she purchases the legal product. A worse trend is that many members of the public are finding samples of legal documents online and attempting to revise these documents on their own without any legal guidance.
Web-Based VLOs Provide a Higher Quality of Unbundled Legal Services
Web-based virtual law practices can provide the public with unbundled legal services that include more personalized attention to individual legal matters. Attorneys operating a VLO communicate directly with their clients securely online. Because of the low overhead associated with running a VLO, the attorney may pass on his or her savings to provide unbundled legal services at a more affordable price than traditional legal services. Clients may acquire the quality legal assistance they can afford so that they may perform the footwork at the courthouse themselves.
As with any prospective client that walks through a physical law office, it is the responsibility of the attorney running the VLO to evaluate each online client on a case by case basis. If the prospective client’s unique situation requires full-service representation, then the attorney must either meet with the client in person for additional legal assistance or refer the client to another attorney.
Given the continuing rise of pro se litigants across the country, an attorney operating a VLO and offering unbundled legal services provides a much needed option in the delivery of legal services to the public. He or she may provide unbundled legal services online through a VLO either as the sole form of legal services offered or as an addition to a full-service law firm. In addition, an attorney launching a VLO taps into a vast and growing consumer market that can be served using secure technology that does not raise the attorney’s law practice overhead.
As more state bars continue to revise their rules of professional conduct and ethics decisions to address the use of technology in the practice of law, legal professionals who understand the importance of using technology to deliver legal services online will need to step forward to educate and defend the critical need for this as an option to provide affordable and convenient legal services to lower and middle income Americans. A VLO providing unbundled legal services is a practical solution that serves both the public and the legal profession.