I began my career as an intake specialist with the Maine State Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) in 2006, and inherited the director’s position in 2014. As long as I have been with the MSBA’s referral program we have had an “unbundled/pro se” panel. I believe it was initially implemented when the previous director revamped our panels to make them more targeted to each caller’s specific issue. Of the 165 attorneys on our program, we have a total of 32 attorneys who are part of this panel, and that typically doesn’t fluctuate much. While our LRS program does not offer pro bono or reduced-fee legal services, we do offer up to a half-hour consultation at no additional charge following payment of a $25 administrative fee.
Our unbundled panel is a general panel, meaning we do not require any specialized training or experience to participate, like we do for areas such as family law, medical malpractice, and employment law, among others. LRS members pay an annual fee for membership in the program, but there is no additional charge to be a part of any panel in our program. I have never had a problem finding attorneys to join this panel, and I believe that Maine has a higher need for this kind of assistance as the income level here tends to be lower than the national median. Last year, we referred a dozen callers to our unbundled panel.
Stephen Smith, who serves as an LRS Committee member and an attorney on our unbundled panel, shared his experience with unbundled services.
It is clear to the callers that they obtain a half-hour consultation for the modest LRS fee, but that standard legal rates apply after the first one-half hour. Such an arrangement takes pressure off potential clients who believe they cannot afford to even speak with a lawyer and who, with some degree of guidance, and perhaps an hour or two of a lawyer’s time, can fill out papers or obtain an understanding as to some future court process.
As lawyers, we sometimes forget that, what to us may seem to be a routine or even boring “process” with very little value added, may be in fact overwhelming and terrifying to a pro se litigant. Often a little handholding and assistance with paperwork can help a client who cannot otherwise afford a lawyer engage the legal system with more confidence.
The legal community often has to balance its professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to afford it, with their own need to put food on the table. Lawyers participating in LRS services should consider their participation in unbundled or pro se panels as helping balance this obligation.
Having dealt with referrals for over a decade as a non-attorney, I cannot imagine going into any legal situation without at least the advice of an attorney if full representation is not financially possible. Considering the members of the public that I speak to, and their general gratefulness that this unbundled service is an option, I am glad that we offer it.
Read the complete issue of Dialogue here.