‘Unbundling’ would allow clients on a budget to handle certain elements of a case themselves, only turning to the solicitor for help with particular aspects – “discrete events of legal assistance” in the Law Society’s words. In family law, these could include drafting divorce petitions, offering initial advice or assistance with financial statements.
The Society’s guidance note says unbundled services are inherently ‘client led’. Each is offered for specified fees in contrast to the usual full retainer arrangement in which a solicitor handles an entire case. Unbundled services must be limited, the Society warns – “…the greater the solicitor’s involvement, the greater the risk that a full retainer could be implied.”
Solicitors are advised to “exercise strict self discipline in keeping within terms of the agreement [to provide unbundled services]”.
The society warns that unbundled services carry certain risks. These include:
- Allegations of professional negligence arising from insufficient knowledge of the client’s situation.
- Allegations of professional misconduct in relation to client care and duties to the court and third parties.
There is also a risk, the society says, of over-servicing unbundled clients (“unwittingly creating a full retainer”) and of not fully complying with the terms of a firm’s professional liability insurance.
The Law Society guidance also emphasises the legal ‘duty of care’ held by law firms. This ‘overriding’ responsibility requires them to act in their clients’ best interests at all times. Law firms should not offer clients unbundled services if they do not think them appropriate to a particular case or if they are worried that the client does not fully understand their limitations.
“Solicitors are restructuring the way they offer legal advice so that clients can instruct them under a limited or partial retainer and therefore pay less. Unbundling will greatly assist clients who are unable to afford to instruct a solicitor on the basis of a traditional retainer, but need advice on one or a number of crucial aspects of their case.”.
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