Written by Ursula Rice

Solicitor, Solicitor Advocate, Director at Family First Solicitors

Ursula is a highly experienced family lawyer. She is warm and passionate about her clients and fights hard for them. Providing practical and accurate legal advice with no messing about is why she set up the firm.

So, you are thinking about running your case yourself – after all, solicitors cost a fortune and much of the system  is having the jargon and the complexity stripped out of it. Why not sail your own boat?

But your ex has a smarty pants lawyer and every document they have sent you reeks of someone who knows what they are doing. Plus, it is really stressful trying to make head or tail of it and you find yourself not quite saying things in the way you want to say them.

An unbundled solicitor will advise you step by step and help you manage the strategy and tactics in your case but you will execute the plan. This saves time and therefore money.

If this is you, it might be worth looking into solicitors who are prepared to offer you a piece of themselves, but not a full service. The technical term for this is agreeing an ‘unbundled retainer’. This way of delivering legal services is becoming more widespread as legal aid incomes fall and lawyers finally get wise to the fact that not everybody can afford them.

Why would I want one?

An unbundled solicitor will advise you step by step and help you manage the strategy and tactics in your case but you will execute the plan. This saves time and therefore money. Another positive side effect is that it usually decreases delay as you are your only client and get on with things immediately.

Receiving unbundled advice will help you put your case in the best way possible and help to steer you in the right direction.

What should I search for?

Look for solicitors using a Google search for ‘Pay-as-you-go family law’ or ‘unbundled family law’.

Check their website and Google reviews. Do they have a track record of doing this?

Lots of solicitors offer ad hoc advice, but not as many understand that to offer a good unbundled service, they need to have a proper framework for engaging with clients and helping them get the most out of the system.

I have found a firm that seems to do this – now what?

Call and make your first appointment. At the appointment you need be satisfied with their answers to the following:

  • Do they have a named lawyer who you will meet with most of the time?
  • How long have they been doing family law?
  • How many unbundled clients do they have?
  • Is there a clearly set out contract between you and the lawyer that defines how the service will work?
  • Can they clearly and in plain English explain to you what it ‘feels like’ to be in their system?
  • Can you switch to full representation if the unbundled service does not work well for you?
  • Do they seem able to give you clear answers about costs?

Be very wary if you are offered a trainee solicitor or a newly qualified solicitor to do this work. Miles on the clock really matter with professional legal services. There is a deep contrast between lawyers who have experience and those who do not. The solicitor who is just qualified, but has done five years as a paralegal with a case load of their own is probably very experienced. A 1 year qualified solicitor who became a trainee straight from university and who has only just started having their own clients is actually quite inexperienced.

It pays to ask questions and gauge how confident and experienced people are before trusting them with your work. Ask yourself; does this person seem able to give direct answers to questions? Do they look like they would be confident advising me in the hot seat if I have a problem?

Making the most of your unbundled session

Each firm will have their own system of working, but a standard way is to offer face-to- face appointments on an hourly rate, by appointment.

At each appointment you need to bring your file of papers (you are in charge of the paperwork so take a look at ‘What the best way of tackling the paper monster?).

Your appointments will be pre booked usually in line with a natural point in the case, for example to draft an application for a non-molestation order or perhaps to put a Form E together.

You will be paying for and receiving your advice in real time (another good reason to use a very experienced lawyer) so make sure you have a method of capturing that advice. A perfect way is to have a dedicated advice book where you write down the issues, the advice and the ‘to do’ list that your lawyer should give you.

Collect your niggly little questions so that you can work on them in the session, in one efficient hit.

Make sure you have the means to pay. The advantage for the lawyer is that they get paid there and then. You will not be able to access your lawyer again if you stiff them on their fees. If you have to save up then that is OK.

What kind of work might we do together?

Typical advice might be as follows:

  • Formulating a letter before action, or a letter to try and reach an agreement – but you will send it.
  • Helping you to fill out an application form like a C100 or Form E – again for you to send.
  • Helping you to think about whether you need more disclosure after receiving a form E (and drafting the questionnaire) – you guessed it, you send it!
  • Putting a without prejudice offer letter together for you to take to your next mediation session.
  • Advocacy – some firms will offer you bolt-on advocacy services for specific hearings.

As can be seen from the above you are buying their brains and experience, not their supersonic photocopier, their admin services or their headed letter paper. You should go away with a to do list that has clear homework for you to get on with.

What kind of cases are suitable for unbundled services?

Generally, if you have one or two family law cases on the go they will work on an unbundled basis.

Private law Children Act matters (for a Child Arrangements Order) are easy to unbundle, especially if you would like bolt-on advocacy services.

  • Special Guardianship Orders.
  • Straightforward financial cases where there is a house, 2 incomes, a bit of pension and a bit of cash that people would prefer not to burn up on lawyers.
  • Non-molestation Orders, even if they are contested (but see below).

Cases where you would like to mediate are suitable for unbundled services and can really help you focus on the proper issues. It pays to know as early as possible that your aspirations for selling the house are unrealistic, or your refusal to let the kids go on holiday for two weeks to Spain is daft

What kind of cases do not work on unbundled services?

  • Public Law cases under the Children Act i.e. care cases. You need legal aid and you are entitled to it if you are a parent.
  • Trust of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 (‘TOLATA’) cases. These are complex and most family lawyers like counsel’s (i.e. a barrister’s) advice when they advise on them. The exception is if your lawyer is very experienced in standard civil litigation (which is not always the case with family lawyers) in which case you may be able to unbundle.
  • Cases where you have no time to do your part of the
  • Cases where you feel unable to deal directly with the other party even when you have the help of a lawyer. Sometimes clients seeking Non- molestation Orders are simply unable to put their point across due to the impact of the abusive behaviour. Abuse has a cumulative effect, and the impact on memory, decision making power and cognitive ability shouldn’t be underestimated. This can mean that they need the ‘shield wall’ that full representation services can offer.
  • Piece work that is usually fixed fee and impossible for a client to draft – i.e. a consent order. The best option is to switch to a fixed fee after using unbundled services to arrive at the agreement.

Cut to the chase – will I save money?

Yes, compared to the hourly rate. A successfully run unbundled case will save in the region of 30% to 50% of the fees you would normally pay on an hourlyrate.

It will also progress things much faster as getting your advice simply depends on how fast you can get an appointment with your lawyer, your ability to pay them in real time and how quickly you finish your homework.

Unbundled services can be the middle point between crashing around on your own and getting into a tangle, and breaking the bank getting help with things you could have done yourself.

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