A lot of people represent themselves in family court in Massachusetts. It is hard to find recent statistics to point to, but I doubt many would argue this point. As a frequent visitor to courtrooms in Massachusetts, I see the majority of parties appearing in court unrepresented by counsel.
It isn't hard to understand why this is happening – very few people can afford a $3,000 to $5,000 retainer to retain a lawyer. What baffles me is why the legal industry hangs on to an antiquated business model that excludes a lot of potential clients. Many of the clients we work with have tried to engage with other lawyers before speaking to us.
I almost always hear one of the following:
- “I called [2, 3, pick a number] lawyers and you are the first one to actually get back to me.”
- “I wasn't expecting you to answer, I thought I would just be leaving a message."
- “I spoke to another attorney and they wanted a $5,000 retainer, which I can't come up with.”
The client experience and how lawyers and clients communicate are both topics for another day. For this post, I want to focus on the availability of legal services for those that can't pay a large upfront retainer.
As someone who has lived paycheck to paycheck and relied on credit cards to make ends meet, for the majority of my life I would not have been able to hire an attorney. And I consider myself really fortunate. I have never been unemployed or faced a devastating life event like having to care for a sick family member, losing a home to a fire or incurring huge medical bills when I didn't have health insurance. I have been really, really lucky. Despite my good fortune, if I needed legal representation, I would have been screwed. I didn't have $3,500 to hand over to a lawyer.
I think there are a lot of people that fall into this category: stable job, decent income, getting by, but nothing in the bank. It is this group that I feel are the most underserved by the legal system. There is a HUGE gap between the two ends of the legal services spectrum - low-income public legal services and traditional hourly legal services with a pre-paid retainer. The thing is - there are other ways that people can get the help of an attorney in between those two extremes.
The first way is through unbundled legal services, or as it is known in Massachusetts, Limited Assistance Representation. This has been around for a long time, but a revised uniform rule went into effect for the Trial Court Department (which includes Family & Probate and Juvenile Courts) on February 1, 2019. The concept of unbundled services is pretty simple - the client pays for specific legal services instead of the entire case. Some clients may have filed everything themselves, but just want someone to appear in court with them. Other clients may just want coaching and guidance on the court process or help with deciding the best way to accomplish a certain goal like increased visitation with a child. The important thing is that the client can decide how and when they need legal assistance for their case and know exactly how much the services will cost.
The second way is through payment plans. More attorneys are beginning to embrace this concept, but there is still only a small minority of firms that offer payment plans.
From the beginning, we have focused on working WITH clients. We want them to be successful, whatever that means for them. But the most important thing is that we want to make sure the client feels like they got great value for their money.
This doesn't mean we are low-cost or “cheap”. It means we will work with clients for just one part of their case if that is all they need help with or all they can afford to spend for legal help. It also means we are flexible with clients on payment arrangements that won't force them into a much worse financial position.
The most important thing to remember is that legal help doesn't have to be all or nothing. There are lots of options, and we will be creative to try to come up with something that will work for your situation, whatever that is.