An interest in and ability to navigate the law is key for the individual doing even part of the work him- or herself. Many people are simply incapable of dealing with the paperwork generated by divorce, let alone the sophisticated calculations, today derived from computer programs, needed to arrive at support payments or the tax ramifications of a property settlement. You need some proficiency in these areas, or you may find yourself lost, even with the best “unbundled” help.
As you go about investigating your options and interviewing attorneys, the first thing you will need to decide is whether the traditional, full-service attorney is for you. It's important to state, up front, that virtually anyone might have a better outcome with a full-service attorney, provided they are able to pay the bill. Because full-service attorneys provide so much more, well, service, some bar associations, along with consumer advocates, have questioned whether selling services à la carte is even ethical. (As of this writing, the American Bar Association's Standard's Revision Task Force is deliberating this issue. They are weighing the financial needs of those seeking legal assistance against their responsibilities to the client.)
The conclusion arrived at by many experts who have examined the issue is this: although limited-scope legal assistance is by definition limited, it ends up being far more comprehensive in the long run for those of limited funds. According to the Conference of State Court Administrators, many middle-class clients run into trouble when they pay a hefty retainer to a full-service attorney. If the retainer runs out before the work is completed—the common scenario—the client will have to pay more for additional services. If the client has run out of funds, he will be forced to handle the rest of his divorce without any legal input at all. On the other hand, if the client had purchased legal services piecemeal—for the most complex tasks, only—he would wind up with more comprehensive legal representation for the duration of his divorce.
So while full representation is certainly in your best interest, that is only true if you can pay the hefty price. If you lack the tens of thousands of dollars required for such an investment, signing on with a full-service lawyer is risky, indeed.
“Some people pay lawyers an amount sufficient to buy the limited representation they need, but as a deposit for full-service representation,” according to the American Bar Association. When the client cannot pay a later installment of the full-service fee, the lawyer can move to be relieved of counsel (the legal phrase for seeking permission to withdraw from a case). If the application is granted, it can leave the client and court frustrated, and it converts the former client into a pro se litigant.
If you have substantial property at stake, or if you are facing a custody war, it may be worth your while to go into debt to finance full-service legal representation for your divorce. If you are well-to-do, you should, by all means, sign on with a full-service lawyer or firm as your best means of protection. However, if you are a person of modest means with an interest in the law, and with no extraordinary issues at stake, you might do well to embrace the adage, “less is more.”