Limited Representation Can Make Hiring a Lawyer More Affordable

Let’s face it – legal fees aren’t cheap. When people need a lawyer, the biggest obstacle is often being able to afford one. Limited representation is a type of fee agreement that can make hiring a lawyer much more affordable

The “Notice of Appearance”

Usually, when a client hires a lawyer for an open court matter, the first thing the lawyer does is file what’s called a “notice of appearance.” This document goes to the judge and the lawyer for the other side. It officially tells them that the lawyer will be on the case.

A notice of appearance is a big commitment. It’s an announcement to the judge,  other side, and anyone in the word, that the lawyer is responsible for the case. The minute the lawyer files this document they have an ethical obligation to properly prepare for and attend all court appearances. The lawyer also now must respond to all communications, and generally act responsibly on the client’s behalf for everything having to do with the case. How the client pays the lawyer for this effort is between the two of them. Once the lawyer commits then the lawyer is responsible regardless of how much, and whether, the client pays.

How Many Hours Will a Lawyer Work on the Case From Beginning to End?

Any lawyer who has been around can tell you that cases aren’t always as they first seem. They might seem to be just a little bit of work and turn out to be much more. Let’s say a case  takes the lawyer many more hours of work then either the client or lawyer thought it would. This could be because of some unforeseen twist. Or it could be that the client left out an important fact. Or it might be because the lawyer underestimated the amount of time involved. It doesn’t matter why. The lawyer is on the hook to do the work.

In most court cases, the fee agreement is hourly. Typically the client pays a retainer upfront that the lawyer deposits in a client trust account. The retainer is an advance on the hourly fee. As the lawyer invoices, money is withdrawn from the trust account to pay the invoice. If the amount of the retainer left in the trust account starts to run low, the lawyer can ask the client to pay more of a retainer in.

What if the Client Runs Out of Money in the Middle of the Case?

If a client is unable to continue paying, however, what a lawyer absolutely CANNOT do is simply stop working the case without notice.  Once a lawyer has filed a notice of appearance, the lawyer must continue to work the case diligently and competently regardless of payment. In order to stop working the case, the lawyer has to get permission from the judge. And there is no guarantee the judge will give permission. If a case is close to trial, the judge might say that it is too late, that allowing the lawyer off the case will result in an unfair delay. Judges have been known to say “too bad” to lawyers trying to withdraw from cases.

Most lawyers prefer to avoid this position altogether by getting a large enough retainer at the beginning. They also regularly monitor the amount left on retainer throughout, judging it against the likely work left.

All of this explains why lawyers often request retainers significantly larger than the client was hoping for. The experienced lawyer, however, knows that it is better to get too high of a retainer, than too low.

Limited Representation Might be the Answer

Enter the concept of limited representation. With a limited representation agreement, the lawyer only agrees to work on a portion of the case, not the whole thing. This might be  reviewing or helping prepare specific documents. It might be  giving the client advice in the lawyer’s office or over the phone. Or it might be the lawyer agrees to attend one specific hearing. Under the limited representation rule, a  lawyer can file what is called a “limited” appearance with the court. This tells the judge and the other side that the lawyer will only be handling this one hearing, and not working the entire case. The lawyer does not need permission to stop work after that.

The advantages and disadvantages should be obvious. On the one hand, the lawyer is committing to, and the client is getting, less support. On the other hand, and for that very same reason, a lawyer can accept a lower retainer. Often a much lower retainer. The lawyer can feel secure that if the client is unable to keep paying, the lawyer is not committed to more than what the client can pay for.

Sometimes limited representation is called “unbundled” legal services. The idea is that what would be a package of legal services are “unbundled”, and offered a la carte instead of all together.

If necessary, at a later time the lawyer and client can agree to a new fee agreement that expands the services, or even converts to “full” representation.

Family Cases Are the Most Common for Limited Representation

For good reasons, courts do not allow limited representation in criminal cases. At Cohen & Winters, as practical matter, the large majority of the cases that we handle on limited representation are family law cases. It enables clients who would not have been able to afford a lawyer to get to get our help.

If you think that limited representation might be good for your case, contact us to talk in more detail. The first consultation is always at no charge.

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