Law a la Carte

Looking to grow your practice? Think small


Depending on the stats you look at, and the area of law, between 60 and 85% of people seeking to resolve legal conflicts do not currently access lawyers. That’s not because there aren’t enough lawyers; there are plenty in BC and many more entering the ranks from our three exceptional law schools, not to mention those who migrate here from other jurisdictions. The real challenge lies with a model of service provision that is outdated and unaffordable to too many, because it presumes that there are only two options: full legal service by a lawyer – start to finish – or no lawyer involved at all. 

Many people are entering legal proceedings with nothing more than what they have been able to garner through the Internet and/or well-meaning services that help unrepresented litigants help themselves. Some people are doing this because they literally cannot afford any assistance and do not get legal aid coverage due to underfunding by government. Others cannot afford the cost of traditional legal assistance (the “full meal deal”) but may be able to pay for discrete services; for them, the real access problem lies in not being able to find the selective expertise they need, when they need it.

Here’s the good news: the judiciary (including Chief Justices), law societies and bar associations here at home and around the world are all making clear that there is a legitimate place for lawyers to provide their services on an “a la carte” basis (also known as unbundled services or limited retainers). What that means is that a huge underserviced market is available to those with the interest and know-how to provide services in a new way that reflects a radical departure from past practice of “all or nothing” legal services. 

I acknowledge that “market” will be perceived by some as a dirty word. But here’s the reality in BC: there are many lawyers struggling to make a living in our province who need to find new ways of staying in business, and at the same time there are thousands of people struggling to fight legal battles in a system that was created by specialists and is tough on amateurs. The fact that they can’t afford full legal services should not prevent them from having better access and better outcomes, with a lawyer involved in some way. This is a win:win situation.

In addition to those who can truly only afford a small portion of the cost of traditional legal services, we are also seeing a modern phenomenon of “self-helper” litigants who are consciously autonomous and independent, and want access to a menu of targeted, affordable legal services from which to choose. This reflects changing trends in how people approach many aspects of their lives as informed consumers, and is a genuine market pressure on legal services. From both an access to justice and economic perspective, it’s past time to change practice in response to these new realities.

If you are interested in finding out more, and thinking about how you might expand your practice and broaden your impact in your community, I encourage you to look at two terrific CBABC PD sessions on this: Unbundling Demystified and Practical Tools for Unbundling, and a great reference from JP Boyd on Slaw

Mediate BC has some good resources and you can sign up for the Family Law Unbundling ToolKit and Roster. For the most recent word on this subject, I highly recommend watching Chief Justice Bauman