This article was written by Hance Law Group associate attorney Jonathan James.
One of the options our firm offers divorcing couples is what we call limited scope services. As you’re aware, divorce runs across a wide spectrum of emotions and situations – some couples might have a very contentious divorce in which they either choose to litigate or go through the collaborative process to try to resolve those differences. Some couples might find that mediation is the best fit for them to come to agreement. And some couples feel that they can work out a settlement on their own, and just might need a lawyer’s eye on the divorce decree to make sure it does what they think it does.
That’s where limited scope services come in. It’s something we offer to people who have a clear sense of what they want their divorce to look like, but might not know how to navigate it themselves. We live in an age in which people can research how to do their own divorces, but the Internet provides bad as well as good advice on how to proceed. A divorce, no matter how amicable, can have significant legal and financial implications that can apply for an entire lifetime – so it makes sense to have a lawyer act on your behalf to review your plan and advise you.
And it’s definitely a more affordable option – while we require a retainer with all of our clients for our services, the retainer for limited scope services is about 35 to 50 percent of what we charge for litigation or collaborative divorce services. We base this on a limited scope option being a less time-intensive process than the other options.
We’re not doing discovery and we’re not preparing for court; we’re focused on legally carrying out the wishes of a couple who has a mutually-agreed upon plan for a divorce, and looking to make sure that clients don’t leave themselves exposed in a settlement that otherwise seems fair. We provide an option in which couples who feel well-versed in the process can file the paperwork themselves, so there’s no official attorney on record as filing, but we also provide an option in which we file, for those who don’t have the time or inclination to familiarize themselves with the process.
One important thing to keep in mind with divorce is even if you’re trying to save money, it’s best to have one lawyer represent each party. There’s a misconception out there that one lawyer can work on behalf of a couple, but the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (the rules of ethics that Texas attorneys are bound by) prevent us from doing so.
Technically, a lawyer can represent one person, and the other person in a divorce can be pro se. For example, I could represent the wife in a divorce, the husband could be pro se, and we could proceed through the divorce that way. But I wouldn’t be able to give legal advice to the husband, I’d be bound by attorney-client privilege for anything the wife told me in a meeting where it was just me and her. So, in the initial meeting for a limited scope divorce, I normally meet with just the party who is going to be my client. If the other party chooses to represent himself or herself pro se, then I can thereafter meet with both spouses as long as the spouse I do not represent clearly understands that I do not represent him or her, and that I cannot give that person legal advice on their divorce.
And the rules extend to the entire firm; though I know my colleagues Bev and Larry would do an excellent job representing the other spouse in limited scope cases in which I represent one spouse, we share support staff, sometimes confer on cases with one another, and we have one shared filing system – so the state ethics rules wisely prevent any firm from representing both parties in a divorce.
There’s a significant underlying reason that this is in effect – sometimes, a mutually-agreed-upon divorce becomes disputed in the process, and the couple decides that they need more significant legal representation to sort out their differences, be it a collaborative or a litigated divorce.
Couples seeking limited scope services will be relieved to know that the great majority of couples who are looking to settle divorces on their own, with our limited scope-level guidance, will be able to do so. For couples on the more cooperative end of the spectrum, it’s a sound, cost-conscious, and principled option for getting to a settlement.