Cobb rule makes lawyers more affordable

Unbundled legal services, or limited scope representation, has been permitted under the rules of ethical conduct for attorneys in Georgia since 2001. As such, attorneys could choose to represent someone for a portion of a case, for a fraction of their usual fee.

However, the Cobb County judiciary this year took extra steps to encourage people who intend to represent themselves in court to at least seek limited legal help. The theory is that doing so will allow self-represented litigants, who tend to bog down court procedures because they don't know the law, to handle their cases with greater speed and efficiency, said Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley.

In March, the county obtained an experimental rule from the Supreme Court of Georgia that clarifies the process of providing unbundled legal services. Information about attorneys who are willing to provide limited services is provided at a monthly Family Law Workshop for self-represented litigants in domestic cases.

Staley sees the step as a necessity in the midst of a recession that has disenfranchised many middle-class people. Often they make too much money to qualify for legal aid but not enough money to pay for a lawyer. Limited scope representation is seen as a way to provide them access to justice.

"It seems like a timely and sensible approach to solving a problem that's not government-intense," said Staley, who helped draft the rule. "It's private sector- and individual responsibility-intense, which are all the things I tend to favor."

If a lawyer is willing, he or she can allow a person to pay a few hundred dollars for limited legal representation instead of paying a retainer of $2,000 or more for representation during an entire case. Some attorneys have found it helps expand their client base.

"A lot of times they come in and figure out their case is complex," said Allyson Russell-Blair, a Marietta attorney who provides limited-scope representation. "They'll end up hiring that attorney for at least a portion of that case. So attorneys are still making money. They just may not be making the substantial retainer up front."

Popular unbundled legal services include attorney consultations, where lawyers can advise how to proceed with a case, as well as help with preparation of legal documents and representation for a single court hearing.

Last February, Stephanie Holder, 26, of Kennesaw, paid Russell-Blair $100 for a 90-minute consultation to help with an uncontested divorce.

"I didn't understand all the legal terms, so she basically helped me with everything," said Holder. "It took about a month and then I went in front of the judge and it was over."

Limited scope representation is not without controversy. Some lawyers are leery about being liable if the case goes awry and some judges dislike being unable to hold an attorney accountable for delays or mistakes. Ordinarily, an attorney files a motion to withdraw from a case, but a judge has discretion about granting the request and could deny the motion.

Cobb County's limited scope rule lets attorneys make an hassle-free exit by filing a notice of limited appearance with the court. The notice specifies the beginning date of appearance and the specific matter for which the attorney is involved. Afterward, the attorney files a notice of termination.

Even so, Cobb Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy admits, "I'm not a real enthusiastic supporter."

"It's sort of like, how can you be a little bit pregnant?" Flournoy asked. "How can you represent someone a little bit? How do you not do a thorough and complete job?"

Cliff Brashier, executive director of the State Bar of Georgia, said limited scope representation has been discussed more often in legal circles during the past two years than ever before.

The practice is popular in California, where there are continuing legal education courses for lawyers on the topic. In Massachusetts, the state's highest court last year expanded a trial program for limited scope representation to the entire state court system.

Jane Hansen, spokeswoman for the Supreme Court of Georgia, said the high court might consider a request to continue the experimental rule in Cobb or expand it.

"If somebody comes and says this has really worked well, ultimately the goal should be to put it in the uniform court rules, so it applies statewide," Hansen said.

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