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Because you watch doctor shows on TV does not make you a brain surgeon: How Wisconsin Rules For Lawyers on Limited Scope Representation Can Provide For Access to Justice

On Behalf of | Sep 14, 2019 | Firm News

In our internet society with boundless information at our fingertips, people try to take legal matters into their own hands.  Forgotten is the old saying of the person who represents him/herself in court has a fool for a client.  People continue to try to represent themselves in court after watching some TV show or reading an article on the internet.

That is dangerous.  Very dangerous.  Do you think you can do brain surgery because you watched “House” or “Gray’s Anatomy” on TV?

Rather than trying to represent yourself in court, consider hiring a lawyer for limited term representation.  The Wisconsin Bar has explained that limited scope representation allows attorneys to work on limited aspects of case. For instance, a lawyer might agree to draft a motion. A lawyer may agree to drafts briefs in litigation, but not to appear in court. Or, a lawyer may agree to appear in court, but only for one particular proceeding.
The current Wisconsin Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys have explicitly allowed limited scope representation since 2007.  SCR 20:1.2(c) reads as follows:

A  lawyer  may  limit  the  scope  of  the  representation  if  the  limitation  is  reasonable  under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent. Thus   the   Rules   explicitly   allow   limited   scope   representation   under   certain   circumstances.

Comment [6] to the Rule further explains:

A limited representation may be appropriate because the client has limited objectives for the representation. In addition, the terms upon which representation is undertaken may  exclude  specific  means  that  might  otherwise  be  used  to  accomplish  the client’s  objectives. Such limitation may exclude actions that the client thinks are too costly or that the lawyer regards as repugnant or imprudent.

Judge John P. Anderson, Bayfield County Circuit Court & Attorney Mary K. Wolverton, Chairpersons of Limited Scope Representation Subcommittee of Planning and Policy Advisory Committee for the Wisconsin Supreme Court have explained that “[l]imited scope representation is one [ ]tool that can improve access to justice for some Wisconsin residents who may not wish to retain counsel throughout an entire legal proceeding or who may not have the resources for full representation.”

Judge John P. Anderson continues, “As a result of economic downturn, families have less money to spend at a time when their legal needs remain at least the same or are rising. The result is more people are using inappropriate legal documents purchased through online companies to file pleadings, affidavits, and other documents. At the same time, lawyers face economic challenges of their own in finding new clients willing and able to hire an attorney. Many self-represented litigants are unaware that they have the option of hiring an attorney to provide limited assistance. It’s a match based on mutual interest that would benefit everyone involved.”

Attorneys must determine whether it is reasonable to limit the scope of representation based on the circumstances at the time of the engagement.  The Chicago Bar has explained that this requires attorneys to consider both the complexity of the legal matter and the capabilities of the client.

Complexity of the Legal Matter:
• Is the case simple enough substantively, strategically, and procedurally to be broken down into discrete steps that can be easily divided between the attorney and the potential client?
Capabilities of the Client:
• Does the potential client have realistic expectations about their ability to handle all or parts of the case on their own?
• Does the potential client have the mental, physical, and emotional capacity to handle parts of the case on their own? When making this determination, an attorney should consider many factors including, but not limited to, disability status, English proficiency, and whether the potential client is a victim of trauma.
• Is the potential client capable of appearing independently in court?
• Does the potential client have the ability to follow instructions?
• Does the potential client have access to the technology needed to comply with e-filing and other court requirements and do they know how to use it?

If the answer to any of the above questions is “no,” the attorney should consider carefully whether limiting the scope of representation will be reasonable. However, the attorney should also keep in mind that reasonableness does not require the lawyer to predict that the client will prevail in the matter with limited scope assistance, but merely that there is a reasonable chance the litigant will do so.

Help where it’s needed
New Wisconsin limited scope rules expressly allow an attorney to appear on behalf of a client for a specific hearing or on a specific issue, provided everyone is given notice of that fact right away.  A good starting point for limited scope representation can be found here.  The new rules call for a written description of the limits on the scope of representation, but it doesn’t have to be anything fancy; many attorneys use a simple checklist, signed by the attorney and client, to take care of this requirement.  When the attorney has completed the scope of the work he or she has been hired to do, the attorney simply files a notice with the Court stating that fact, and the self-represented party is on their own from that point forward.
The new limited scope rules are good for the general public depending on the facts of a case. People who have limited income and are in need of legal assistance and guidance can focus their resources on issues in areas that will provide them the greatest benefit.  This will result in courts seeing fewer cases where unrepresented parties struggle with complex legal problems.