If you are providing unbundled legal services online — whether you are providing pro bono unbundled assistance or charging a fee for your services, you might want to read through this opinion (Thigpen v. Banas) that was issued in the Northern District of Illinios in February.
The case is related to ghostwriting/unbundling of legal services. Mr. Thigpen, a pro se litigant, filed a proposed second amended complaint which appeared to be drafted by an attorney and upon inquiry the plaintiff admitted that it was. However, the attorney had not signed his or her name to the document or made an appearance before the court. The opinion discusses the dangers of ghostwriting to both parties in the case and discusses the rules of professional responsibility that the attorney who drafted the document breached by not making an appearance before the court.
This opinion provides a good reminder for those of us unbundling legal services online that we need to 1) determine from the beginning of our contact with the prospective client if the matter may be unbundled or needs full-service representation and 2) that we are clear when we intiate any online representation what services we will provide for the client and which services we will not provide. In the above opinion, the attorney who drafted this proposed second amended complaint should not have jumped into the middle of a matter where full-service, in-person representation was required without making appearance before the court.
Some state bars have different requirements for attorneys working with pro se litigants, but from my reading, most at a minimum require disclosure to the court that the document being presented by the pro se litigant has been drafted by a licensed attorney. Even Illinois, the state where the above opinion originated, is taking steps to guide attorneys in providing limited scope representation. You should check with your state bar for ethics opinions and procedures related to unbundling or working with pro se individuals in your state. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, check out the ABA Delivery Committee’s unbundling resource center as well.
I am a firm believer that unbundled legal services are a necessity for greater access to justice for the public and to help unburden our court system administrations with the overflow of pro se individuals. However, there is a responsible and careful way to unbundle legal services. It’s discouraging when a few bad seeds get more press than they deserve. But maybe the one benefit from that exposure is an emphasis on best practices for the delivery of unbundled legal services and greater awareness by the profession that there is a need by the public for this form of legal service.