Michigan’s Court Rules and Rules of Professional Conduct changed in 2018 to explicitly permit limited-scope representation (LSR), giving practitioners guidelines on how to provide this more affordable form of representation in a way that protects clients and makes the attorney-client relationship clear to courts, opposing counsel, and clients.1
To learn more about how attorneys are taking advantage of limited-scope rules, we spoke to a few about their experiences.
Erika L. Butler is a solo practitioner in the Detroit area representing local nonprofits, small businesses, and individual clients in litigation and transactional matters in the areas of commercial litigation, family law, probate and trust administration, and real estate. Limited-scope representation accounts for 15-20% of her practice, which consists primarily of guardianships, conservatorships, uncontested divorces, and consultations with clients handling their own family and probate matters.
“There are people who need help, but their matter doesn’t require full representation,” Butler said. “Often, lower-income communities and communities of color believe they cannot afford legal help and must face legal matters on their own. However, I can offer a little bit of guidance and information that empowers them to navigate the matter and move forward.
“With the gift of having practiced as long as I have, I can tell clients very quickly what it will take for me to do my portion of the work on their le gal matter and what resources they will need to handle their tasks.”
Zachary Backlund is an associate attorney at Sterling Law, a five-attorney firm with offices in Traverse City and Gaylord. Limited-scope represntation accounts for about 17% of his practice, which consists of family law, estate planning, and real estate. His firm started providing limited-scope services shortly after the rule change.
“In northern Michigan, we serve many limited- scope clients who would not otherwise be able to afford an attorney,” Backlund said. “They can’t fork over a big retainer. When they hear about limited-scope representation, they sigh with relief.
“I use the analogy of controlling the flow of water through a hose — with full-scope representation, the hose is on; with limited scope, they control the flow. The attorney is here when you need him and not when you don’t.”
Rebecca Tooman, a solo practitioner at Innovative Law Services in Novi, focuses on family law and estate planning. She estimates that 20% of her clients have limited-scope engagements.
“My favorite attorney was Abraham Lincoln,” said Tooman, who has been offering limited-scope services for 14 years and promotes this as her opening product and the one where she adds the most value. “As a small-town attorney, he had to know all areas of the law and promoted compromises — but these days we specialize, and limited scope allows us to draft documents without filing an appearance. This is very beneficial for clients that cannot afford representation or prefer to manage their own case.”
Tooman finds the feedback she receives from LSR clients rewarding; they are happy to save their hard-earned money while also getting the right amount of help.
Mechelle Woznicki is a solo practitioner serving Kalamazoo and southwest Michigan specializing in collaborative law and mediation in the areas of family law and estate planning. Limited-scope representation initially accounted for 75% of her practice but because of limited-scope clients converting to full representation after deciding they want more assistance, it now accounts for one-quarter to one-half of her business. “It was a good way for me as a new lawyer to get my feet wet,” Woznicki said. “Limited-scope representation also gives you and the client a chance to see if you are a good fit before entering into a business relationship. Mostly, I love offering people services that they desperately need and never knew they could afford.”
Limited-scope practice is not just for private practitioners. Legal aid programs across the state — including many of their pro bono attorneys — frequently engage in limited-scope practice.
“Offering limited-scope pro bono opportunities helps attract attorneys from larger firms and transactional attorneys who don’t want to go to court,” said Shannon Lucas, director of advocacy at the Michigan Advocacy Program (MAP) in Ypsilanti. “They can assist with a part of the case where their expertise is needed, including business evaluations, real estate issues, qualified domestic relations orders, and bankruptcies. What might have been a consultation in the past can now be a limited-scope case.”
Many pro bono attorneys are more attracted to these opportunities than taking on an entire family law case, for example, which can be emotionally and legally complex and unpredictable in terms of the time and work involved in completing the case. Lucas added that the new LSR rules “let our staff attorneys focus on where they can be the most effective in a case. In some cases, our staff attorneys will provide the necessary legal work and leave the other details that clients can generally handle on their own to the client. When attorneys can concentrate their efforts on legal aspects of a case, they are able to focus on maximizing services to clients, being more efficient, and providing services to more people.”
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LSR AND FULL-SCOPE REPRESENTATION
While the legal and administrative work involved in limited-scope representation is like full-scope representation, there are differences, a few of which were described above. In some ways, the relationships with these clients can be easier to maintain.
“Full-scope clients tend to be more litigious, more challenging, needing the attorney to act as an emotional buffer between the parties,” Tooman said. “This leads to additional stress on the attorney. This typically isn’t the case with clients who are primarily representing themselves.”
“There is a teacher-pupil dynamic that doesn’t really exist with full representation clients,” Backlund said. “I provide more explanation of legal terms and practices for my LSR clients and prepare them to appear in court, so I need to use more careful, precise, and plain language when communicating with them.”
On the business end, Tooman said she spends less time in court on limited-scope cases, allowing her to be more productive and eliminate hours spent traveling and waiting in courtrooms. Several attorneys also mentioned the importance of automation and lean business practices in building a successful limited-scope practice.
“I’m all about lean and if I can’t do it lean, then I don’t want to do it at all,” Woznicki said. “Family law is ideal for limited scope because the stages of family law cases are so segmented.”
“Efficiency is the key,” she added. “Think of this example: If you bill a flat fee of $1,500 for a process that takes an attorney an average of six hours to complete, that’s $250 an hour. If you can refine your processes to get the same work done in one to three hours, your effective hourly rate is anywhere from $500 to $1,500 an hour. You to earn more money while helping more clients in the same amount of time another lawyer can only help one.”
DRAWBACKS TO LSR PRACTICE
There are many advantages to limited-scope representation, but there are also challenges. In the early days of the new LSR rules, attorneys experienced some pushback from judges and clerks, but that has improved as more people learn the rules and become familiar with the practice.
Tooman prepares clients to answer questions regarding LSR from court staff and has sent opposing counsel copies of the court rules when questioned.
“It always ends up being a positive experience after jumping through some hoops.” Tooman said.
Another challenge of LSR is ensuring everyone stays within the scope of the agreement.
“It doesn’t happen often, but on occasion, a client wants to come back after the scope has ended with additional questions,” Butler said. “During the consultation, I am clear about the parameters of my representation and there should be no expectation of ongoing representation.”
“It takes a lot of discipline to stick to the scope of representation,” Woznicki said. “Naturally, when you represent someone, you want to keep helping them as much as you can, but with limited scope it is important to remember you have only been hired to do certain discrete tasks.
“The most important thing is to make sure the client understands this, and that it is articulated well in the representation agreement. Checklists help here.”
“It is hard to prepare a client to present a case in trial or contested motion hearing,” Backlund said. “Some things get lost in translation. It can also be hard to manage client expectations since you can’t predict or influence what ultimately happens in court.”
Backlund shared the story of a client with a multi-day trial in which the other side had counsel. Backlund met with his client every day to recap that day’s events and prepare for the following day. They often spoke during lunch breaks as well. Backlund wanted to be sure he was conveying all of the information correctly, which was difficult because he was hearing everything secondhand.
“There are often details that aren’t important to the client but if I were representing them, I would need to know,” he said. “Knowing you can’t be with the client throughout the process can be hard.” Ultimately, the trial was a success — the client was satisfied and proud to be able to represent himself with Backlund’s assistance.
“[There are] proud teacher moments,” he said, “when clients come back and things went as planned.”
When clients are responsible for many aspects of their case, communication and keeping up with paperwork can be a challenge.
“When you are engaged in full-scope representation, everything comes through the attorney,” Backlund said. “With LSR, that is not the case. Occasionally, a client will forget to provide an important document or tell you about a hearing recently scheduled in the case. You need to emphasize to the client the importance of telling you everything that is happening. This challenge can be overcome by effective communication and client management.”
HOW CAN I DO MORE LSR?
The attorneys we talked to were unanimous in their support of limited-scope practice and wish that more attorneys would engage in LSR.
Butler encourages attorneys to familiarize themselves with the court rules and develop a set of forms to use as a part of their LSR practice. She also recommended speaking to colleagues with LSR experience and studying LSR resources.
The SBM website has many free resources to help you build your limited-scope practice, including a Limited Scope Toolkit michbar.org/limited-scope with sample practice forms including an engagement letter and consent, end of representation letter, and task checklist. There are also sample court forms, sample flow charts for attorneys and clients, and marketing tools to help you advertise the limited-scope aspects of your practice. Finally, there are links to training materials including a free ICLE webinar, national resources, and an opportunity to join a limited-scope discussion group where you can confer and consult with other LSR attorneys.
Networking is critical to growing an LSR practice; most clients are word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied clients.
“Find clients who are the right fit,” Tooman said. “Go to seminars and ICLE functions to meet attorneys who might refer clients who can’t afford them or only want limited-scope services.”
Backlund recommends talking about limited scope at the first meeting with a client and having brochures available that explain both limited and full scope. All of the attorneys we spoke to recommended advertising limited-scope services on the State Bar website in addition to your own and talking about your practice on social media outlets.
LSR IN REAL LIFE
Like Backlund, each attorney we interviewed had success stories to share. Woznicki talked about a client who hired her just for coaching. They met twice, the client paid her $500, and the client successfully represented herself in a divorce without minor children. Tooman had a divorce client with a complex case requiring more than 30 forms to be filed. The client was overwhelmed, but with limited-scope assistance from her attorney, they broke down the process step by step, assigned action items to the appropriate parties, and successfully completed every form. Both enjoyed the team approach, and the client was happy with the result.
Butler represented a client in a high-conflict divorce case where the other party was self-represented. As the trial neared, the adverse party hired a limited-scope attorney to negotiate a settlement; the parties and their attorneys were able to finalize the divorce without a trial.
“That attorney’s involvement saved me the time of a trial and saved my client from the emotional energy and toll that a contested divorce trial will often take,” Butler said. “It gave both parties a better outcome.”
LSR has also opened the doors to new pro bono opportunities.
“Our recent expungement clinics have been wonderful ways to involve new pro bono partners,” Lucas said. “The NAACP reached out to get involved in a recent clinic, which was the first time we have ever partnered with them. Of the 23 attorneys who participated in a MAP expungement clinic, 15 of them were volunteering for the first time.
“We also hope that by offering one successful pro bono opportunity, some volunteers will decide to take on the expungement case for full representation after having gotten to to know the client at the clinic.”
Tooman sums up her role as a limited-scope attorney as being equal parts lawyer and project manager.
“When I team up with a limited-scope client, I become their contact, their calendar, their task list,” she said. “I send them reminders of what to expect before court and how to prepare. I step in to help with complex issues but, overall, it is an educational approach.”
What we learned from these experienced practitioners is that limited-scope representation is not a lesser form of legal representation. In fact, it can enable skilled professionals to help more people. Limited-scope attorneys help bridge the justice gap by providing affordable legal assistance and pro bono expertise in critical legal matters to lower-income people.