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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Making limited scope legal services work

Seth Davidson

A sole practitioner based in Torrance, Seth Davidson took the bar exam and hung out his shingle in 2008, more than 15 years after graduating law school. As an older attorney just getting started, Davidson’s opportunities were limited. He turned to limited scope representation, or providing limited and specific services to litigants without undertaking full case representation, to help get his practice started. Davidson recently spoke to the California Bar Journal about the benefits of limited scope, also known as unbundling, and offered tips for making it work.

Tell me a little bit about your practice and what you do.

I began practicing on my own out of necessity. But that necessity was pretty dire. This was in the middle of the big economic meltdown. I had been laid off from a job as a website marketer for an asbestos law firm, and I had three kids. One of them was in college and the other was about to start.

One of the first things that I learned about was the lawyer referral services that are run through L.A. County Bar Association and the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. And with adequate malpractice coverage, some mentoring, access to a legal research database, and also some volunteer time I’d done at the self-help center in Compton, I was able to take on what some people consider to be the bottom of the barrel in law practice, which are unlawful detainers. I quickly realized this may be bottom of the barrel in terms of the way the legal profession views it, but it’s an extremely important type of law that makes a profound impact on people’s lives. It’s hard to make that pay and work. Because the people who can’t pay their rent are almost always people who never have money left over to pay an attorney. And that’s where limited scope representation can begin to play a role.

So, some unlawful detainer cases were extremely simple. And others were fairly complicated. But limited scope allowed me to go in and analyze what needed to be done and figure out if it was something I could just do for a flat fee. Then I could sign on as the attorney of record or, given the client finances, I could only offer some, as the name implies, limited scope representation.

I was able to apply the principle of limited scope to a variety of other consumer law related issues. One of those issues that is quite common has to do with Consumer Legal Remedies Act claims, where a consumer has been ripped off by a service provider, by a goods provider, and they don’t have the resources to litigate it even though the statute provides for attorney fees. One way that limited scope is helpful is just drafting the demand letter. Because the demand letter under CLRA claims is very specific.

Complicated for a non-lawyer?

That’s right. That CLRA demand letter itself can be extremely powerful. It tells the recipient that if they don’t fix this problem, they are not only going to be facing litigation but they are going to be facing litigation that has a statutory provision for attorney fees for the prevailing consumer. And it’s an example of where a consumer can spend a couple hundred dollars to have an attorney to review their documentation.

For people like me, [limited scope] is a great way to diversify your practice and to make sure you’re sort of on the receiving end of small work that other attorneys are too fancy for, too expensive for, don’t have the time for, or frankly don’t know anything about. I get quite a few referrals for cases that are applicable to limited scope from both attorney friends and non-attorney friends.

Limited scope has been very helpful, and it’s interesting because larger firms often don’t [do it], they’ve never heard of it. I had one case where a guy had a big insurance fraud case filed against him in L.A. County, and he had to simply file an answer in the civil case. So I drafted the answer, but then I also filed the limited scope representation paperwork along with the answer. I was talking to opposing counsel, who worked for a big downtown firm, who said, “Yeah, we got the limited scope paperwork.” He said “I was walking up and down the hall sticking my head into other lawyers’ offices, ‘What the hell is this?’ ”

So it was completely foreign to them?

Yeah. He was a good guy. I think he was poking fun at me a little bit, to kind of make me cognizant of what a small operation I was, but I ended up being able to help my client and get him what he needed. I think where limited scope really can be used to greatest effect is solo practitioners, people who aren’t too proud to work for a couple hundred bucks. It also ties, in my mind, to sort of the broader effort to [open]  the courthouse doors to ordinary people.

So it’s an access to justice issue then?

It’s an enormous access to justice issue. Family law is a great example of where limited scope representation can just make all the difference in the world [and] take the people, as they can afford to pay, on a step-by-step basis through family court.

The most effective place for lawyers who are willing to work for a couple hundred bucks a pop to get work is the one place they are banned from [doing so]: the courthouse. You have this bizarre situation where you have thousands and thousands of people who barely know which room to go to, going through the courthouses and through the self-help centers.

We have enough lawyers to help people with these small issues, and we have a tool to make it profitable for attorneys called limited scope, but we have terrible skepticism within the administration of the courts and within the bar that we lawyers can be trusted to solicit business in the courthouse.

If you spend any time at all at the Compton courthouse or at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse or the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana or, you know, the smaller regional courts in Orange County, they’re just flooded with people and limited scope and small practitioners could alleviate the need and open the courthouse doors.

Is it fair to say that limited scope is a big part of your practice?

Not at this point. At this point I’d say it’s probably a small part of my practice, but it was once a lot bigger than it is now. I’d say the first, you know, three or four years, it was probably half my practice.

Has that changed because you got more regular business?

I’ve got bigger cases. Most of my practice is now bicycle cases and bankruptcy. My cases are standard personal injury cases, and you do them on a contingency basis and take them all the way. I think limited scope is really a fantastic way for people who are really just starting out and need cash flow. The other good thing about limited scope is really it allows you, the new attorney, to focus on a little narrow band of problems.

Do you think attorneys have misconceptions about limited scope and, if so, what kind of things?

I don’t know that they have misconceptions about limited scope. I just think they don’t really know about it. Every attorney inherently understands [the notion that], “I’m just going to work up until what you can afford to pay me for.” Unless it’s a contingency case. I think part of your intake always involves trying to figure out how much money the client has to spend on this case. So, it’s natural for attorneys to evaluate cases in terms of how much money the client has to spend on it, but the only thing about limited scope that’s a little unusual is that a case could be broken up into 10 different segments. You know, “I’m going to represent you through to here. Boom, we’re done and if there’s another phase you want me to help you with, come back and we’ll do it again.”

What kind of advice would you have for people who want to use it in their practice?

I think it’s really a great tool for new lawyers. My advice would be to get on a panel, on the L.A. County Bar Association’s lawyer referral service. I’m not on that LRS anymore, but I believe they have a moderate means panel where they will refer very, very small dollar cases to you. Those are really perfect for limited scope. Get on a lawyer referral service and get involved with and connect with the attorneys that do this kind of work, or have done this kind of work, so that they can mentor you. The lawyer incubator program that they’ve got at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County is fantastic. They’ve got great lawyers and people who will share what they know and resources. My daughter actually interned there. She’s graduating from law school next month.

Have you talked to her about this?

Yeah, absolutely.

Meaning, This might be an option for you when you graduate?”

Yeah, to the extent she wants to work with me. I don’t know if she will or not. That’s definitely the kind of work I’ll recommend she do to start off with. And I’ll obviously be delighted to help her.