Unbundled law firms find success offering virtual legal services
The Law Shop by Skogerson McGinn in Van Meter, Iowa, provides unbundled legal services, which means it helps clients with specific legal tasks rather than assisting them with their entire cases or matters.
In the family law realm, its unbundled offerings include coaching self-represented litigants on filling out divorce forms and preparing child support worksheets.
By emphasizing this nontraditional approach, also known as limited-scope representation, The Law Shop has attracted inquiries from consumers across the state seeking affordable legal assistance.
This interest from clients far beyond its base just outside of Des Moines prompted the firm to start providing some virtual legal services in the years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, said firm co-founder and partner Andrea McGinn. Doing so helped smooth The Law Shop’s transition to all-virtual work amid COVID-19 and enabled it to continue on a positive trajectory.
“We have grown our firm to five attorneys and are expanding the unbundled services into other practice areas,” McGinn said. “I can say with 100% certainty we are busier right now than we have ever been.”
McGinn was one of several speakers at last week’s Unbundled Legal Services in the New Normal conference to describe how the limited-scope law firm model has held up well during this pandemic period that has required legal assistance to be primarily provided in a virtual fashion.
The virtual event, held April 20-22, was hosted by the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, the Chicago Bar Foundation and the Self-Represented Litigation Network.
Panelists also discussed the integral role technology, including tools designed specifically for self-represented litigants, can play in helping unbundled firms best serve consumers.
Arkansas attorney Laura O’Bryan, who is co-owner of the MyVirtual.Lawyer brand and does her legal work through the Arkansas firm O’Bryan & Moore, said during the conference that lawyers affiliated with her brand’s network (some of whom are in Florida and Texas) have been providing unbundled legal services in a 100% virtual fashion for several years.
For example, MyVirtual.Lawyer attorneys with O’Bryan & Moore deliver limited-scope services virtually in the areas of family law, business law and estate planning.
This experience helped the Arkansas firm grow its business during COVID-19, even in a state with high levels of poverty that was hit hard by the pandemic, O’Bryan said.
“We didn’t have to make any pivots because of coronavirus,” she later told the ABA Journal.
For Alyease Jones, a Chicago-based lawyer who provides unbundled services in family law, it was the pandemic that forced her to shift to providing fully virtual legal assistance.
Jones said her success serving clients remotely, which resulted in a profitable year, prompted her to give up a shared office suite.
Operating virtually has also allowed her to provide services to clients in other counties, and she expressed hope courts would continue to permit lawyers to make remote court appearances beyond COVID-19.
“That affords you the opportunity to reach areas you may not have been able to reach if you were having to show your face in court,” Jones said.
McGinn said that another benefit of operating virtually is being better able to quickly transition from one client matter to another. She said this is particularly helpful for unbundled firms, which typically take on a higher volume of clients than full-service firms.
“I think you can be much more efficient operating virtually,” McGinn said.
O’Bryan said that practice management, e-calendaring, e-signature and e-payment tools are among the technologies she uses to help her efficiently operate a virtual unbundled practice. In addition, she uses automation services to assist with tasks such as drafting pleadings.
O’Bryan also said that while much of her panel’s discussion focused on family law, unbundling is effective in other practice areas as well.
“The reason that we do estate planning and small-business assistance is because those are already unbundled anyway,” she said. “Pretty much anything that is transactional in nature, that is easy to unbundle.”
McGinn agrees, telling the ABA Journal her firm has effectively extended its reach to the practice areas of business formation, estate planning, real estate and criminal law.
Meanwhile, the unbundled legal services conference also featured discussion about ways technology can be used beyond providing direct legal assistance.
California family law attorney Erin Levine spoke about creating Hello Divorce, an online platform that helps consumers in California, Colorado and Utah move through the divorce process. She says most users choose one of Hello Divorce’s service options that does not include receiving assistance from a lawyer.
“Not everyone is a good candidate for unbundled services, but almost everyone needs lower-cost legal help,” said Levine, CEO and founder of Hello Divorce.
Colorado attorney Lauren Lester said her experience offering unbundled legal services in the family law realm also prompted her to create tools consumers can use on their own to solve legal problems.
In response to finding herself answering the same questions over and over again from consumers, Lester created LawGuides to assist members of the public in completing their divorce and custody cases.
“The consumer can go on and go step-by-step through the entire process on their own,” said Lester, whose platform features a subscription pricing model.
Scott Kelly, co-founder of Afterpattern, also encouraged conference attendees to consider creating technology products that use their legal expertise to meet consumer needs.
Kelly, whose platform helps a wide array of businesses and organizations build custom forms and automate documents, said that the cost of software development is low, and technology tools can be deployed very quickly.
“Every law firm can grow its customer base and tap into new revenue streams by integrating legal products into their delivery model,” he said.