Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A la carte legal services - can this help solve the rural lawyer shortage?

Illinois Public Media recently published an article that looked at a potential way to address the rural lawyer shortage, a la carte legal services. It focused a firm in rural Iowa that has decided to offer this service. Unlike traditional legal representation, which includes any and all services related to a particular legal matter, a la carte legal services allows a client to pick which services they want to retain an attorney for. As the article notes, many people in rural spaces fail to retain counsel for a myriad of reasons, notably physical distance from an attorney (which makes it difficult to establish a relationship) and lack of funds. The article focuses heavily on divorce and custody cases, where a person may only seek assistance with completing or filing documents. An example is given in the article of a couple that only needed assistance with filing paperwork. Lawyers who offered this service were able to complete that at a much lower price than they would have paid for full legal representation.

I have some personal experience in this realm. When I was an intern at Legal Aid of North Carolina, I taught a clinic on how to represent yourself in a divorce and custody proceeding. During the training, I went over, in-depth, how to complete the paperwork needed to initiate a divorce or custody proceeding and then walked the students through the processes that would follow. My students were usually indigent clients who could not afford legal representation on their own and by virtue of living in a rural community, did not have many options to speak of anyway. In essence, they faced many of the same barriers as the litigants in the linked article. What I learned when I taught the clinic is that many people do not know the process well enough to know whether or not they may need an attorney. While the majority of people I taught did not present any questions that illustrated a barrier to pro se representation, there were a few who presented questions that made it evident that they needed an attorney to help them through every step of the process. I also noticed that students would hear about a part of the process that they were unaware existed and then decide that they needed an attorney.

When presented with a question that made the need for private counsel evident, I was able to recommend that the client consult an attorney to help them through the process. While an a la carte attorney could certainly look at a case and refer the client to an attorney who could give them full service representation, this approach would only apply to someone who engages an ala carte attorney at the beginning of the process. If a person does not know about the process at all, they may get far into it without realizing they need a full service attorney. For a person who needs a full service attorney, getting legal representation ala carte is not even remotely a real option.

My principal concern with ala carte representation is that people will assume that they may only need an attorney for a limited item, only to later realize that they needed an attorney for much more, which may result in higher costs in the long term. Also, by only engaging an attorney for part of the process, a client may also receive advice that does not adequately fit their situation. The end result is that the client may end up in a worse position than they were before they engaged an attorney at all.

I certainly have no problem with ala carte legal options existing in rural spaces, people after all deserve the right to ultimately determine the scope of representation that they receive. I disagree however with the notion that it could be a potential solution to the rural lawyer shortage. It can be apart of the solution, it does after all offer rural residents an option that already exists in many urban areas. As a potential solution to the rural lawyer shortage however, it once again feels like something that results in rural residents receiving a substandard option.

As the article also notes, the idea of a la carte legal services is not entirely new. The ABA even offers guidelines for how to carry it out. It is an interesting approach and one that I am skeptical of, at least as a solution to the rural lawyer shortage.

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