Limited Scope Representation Resources
The information and resources on this page are intended to help you understand some of the risks inherent in providing limited scope legal services, and how you can reduce your exposure to a claim when working for a client on an unbundled basis.
At its very simplest, the “unbundling” of legal services, also commonly called “limited scope representation” or “a limited scope retainer” (which is now a defined term under the Rules of Professional Conduct), is “the provision of legal services by a lawyer for part, but not all, of a client’s legal matter by agreement between the lawyer and the client.”
Limited scope legal services have been offered for many years in numerous areas of practice in Ontario. There is more interest in them recently and they are now becoming more common as they are seen as a way to address access to justice issues, particularly in family law.
When you are handling only part of a client’s matter, you need to be extra careful to make sure you and the client have a clear understanding of the work you are retained to do. Limited scope representation does not mean less competent or lower quality legal services. You owe the same duties of competence, diligence, loyalty and confidentiality to limited-scope clients that you owe to full-service clients. This includes understanding their particular circumstances sufficiently to give them appropriate legal advice. Doing so will address the two most common causes of claims against lawyers: communication issues and inadequate investigation or discovery of facts. See below for steps to reduce your exposure to a claim when providing legal services on a limited scope basis.
To help Ontario lawyers lessen their risk of a claim when they are working on a limited scope retainer, LAWPRO has collected the following resources and precedents which can be used as is or adapted to a firm’s specific needs:
- Best Practices Tip Sheet, Limited Scope Representation: Follow these practical tips to effectively manage your limited scope representation files and lower your risk of a malpractice claim. (Word format)
- Flow Chart for Lawyers: This sets out the typical steps involved in a limited scope representation. (PDF format and Word format)
- Retainer Agreement, Limited Scope Representation (family law): This retainer precedent helps set out the lawyer and client’s respective responsibilities. (PDF format and Word format)
- Checklist of Services, Limited Scope Representation: Use this checklist to clearly indicate the menu of unbundled services your firm offers (it mirrors the list in the retainer precedent). (PDF format and Word format)
- Client Handout – What Is Limited Scope Representation? This one page handout helps the client understand the nature of a limited scope representation. (PDF format and Word format)
- Client Handout – What Are the Steps? A Flow Chart: Use this flow chart to help your clients understand the steps that will occur on a limited scope representation file. (PDF format and Word format)
- Client Handout – Tips for Keeping Your Family Lawyer’s Legal Fees Down: This handout gives the clients a playbook for all their dealings with your firm. (PDF format and Word format)
How to reduce your exposure to a claim
Here are several steps to reduce your exposure to a claim when providing legal services on a limited scope basis (taken from this LAWPRO Magazine article):
Limited scope representation does not mean less competent or lower quality legal services: The commentary to Rule 3.1-2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, “Competence” specifies that a lawyer considering whether to provide legal services under a limited scope retainer must carefully assess in each case whether, under the circumstances, it is possible to render those services in a competent manner. And further, Rule 3.2-1A provides that: “Before providing legal services under a limited scope retainer, a lawyer shall advise the client honestly and candidly about the nature, extent and scope of the services that the lawyer can provide, and, where appropriate, whether the services can be provided within the financial means of the client.”
Thus, under the Rules, a lawyer and client can limit the scope of representation and agree on the means used to achieve the client’s goals or objectives. However, while the Rules afford the lawyer and client great latitude to limit the time spent or costs of the representation, the limitation must be reasonable under the circumstances. Limitations will not be considered reasonable if the time allotted is not sufficient to yield advice upon which the client can rely.
Lawyers providing unbundled legal services owe the same duties of competence, diligence, loyalty and confidentiality to limited-scope clients that they owe to full-service clients. Be careful not to fall below the required standard of care just because you are handling a matter on a limited scope basis.
Identify the discrete collection of tasks that can be undertaken on a competent basis: Take the time to understand the specific tasks and/or legal issues on which the client is seeking assistance. Make sure there are discrete tasks that you can undertake on a competent basis, and consider how ethics and court rules apply to the tasks you choose to handle.
Confirm the scope of the limited retainer in writing: Rule 3.2-1A.1 directs that “when providing legal services under a limited scope retainer, a lawyer shall confirm the services in writing and give the client a copy of the written document when practicable to do so.” Put in writing the discussions and agreement with the client about the limited scope retainer; doing so will both assist the client in understanding the limitations of the service to be provided and document the extent of the retainer in case it is questioned at a later time. Rule 3.2-1A.2 specifies some limited exceptions to the limited scope retainer writing requirement.
Clearly document work and communications: At every step of the matter, take steps to ensure it is clear to the client which tasks you are or are not responsible for, and keep a record of all communications (information and instructions provided by the client, advice given by the lawyer). Lawyers can significantly reduce their exposure to a claim by controlling client expectations from the very start of the matter, actively communicating with the client at all stages of the matter, creating a paper trail that documents communications, and confirming what work was done on a matter at each step along the way.
Be careful with communications when opposing counsel is acting on an unbundled basis: The commentary under 3.2-1A.1 provides that: “a lawyer who is providing legal services under a limited scope retainer should consider how communications from opposing counsel in a matter should be managed.” This recognizes that in the unbundled context a lawyer will deal with opposing counsel on the matters within the scope of a limited retainer and directly with a client on matters outside the scope of the retainer. Rule 3.2-1A.1 provides specific directions on how and when to communicate with opposing counsel and clients in the unbundled context. Note that court rules and procedures have yet to be amended to specifically address some of the issues raised in the unbundling context (e.g., communicating with counsel who is only handling some issues on a matter; dealing with a client under a disability; going on or off the record; or the ghost-writing of pleadings).
Recognize that unbundled legal services are not appropriate for all lawyers, all clients, or all legal problems: Further to commentary under Rule 3.2-9, limited scope representation will generally not be appropriate if a client’s ability to make adequately considered decisions in connection with the matter or representation is impaired due to minority, mental disability or for other reasons. That commentary states: “a lawyer who is asked to provide legal services under a limited scope retainer to a client under a disability should carefully consider and assess in each case how, under the circumstances, it is possible to render those services in a competent manner.” Lawyers should take care when they are providing unbundled services to clients who are or might be under a disability.
Be careful providing further assistance to a client after a limited scope retainer is terminated: In many cases, a matter handled on a limited scope retainer basis will have started before the lawyer became involved and/or will continue on after the work the lawyer agreed to do is completed. If the client comes back for further assistance, the lawyer should make sure a new full or limited scope retainer is in place.
Unbundled legal services are one solution to the complex issue of access to justice and are likely to become more commonplace. Be aware of the risks of unbundled legal services and prepared to take the steps outlined above to help you reduce your exposure to a malpractice claim.