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New Report on Phase 1 of the Family Law Unbundled Legal Services Research Project

My post in January 2021 introduced the Family Law Unbundled Legal Services Research Project funded by the Legal Aid BC / Law Foundation BC Legal Research Fund. In this post I am very pleased to advise that the report on Phase 1 of the project is now available here.

Quoting from the Executive Summary:

The Family Law Unbundled Legal Services Research Project (ULSRP) is an initiative designed to both evaluate the effectiveness of family unbundled legal services and to facilitate access to justice by enhancing the working relationships between the existing community of ULS providers and BC citizens most in need of unbundled-type services.

Essential to the effectiveness of legal service delivery is the client experience. Experience is multi-dimensional and makes it difficult to capture standardized data, but it serves as an important beacon to evaluate and guide improvements to legal services and regulatory policy in the province. This initiative designs tools that will support evaluation on an ongoing basis, rather than using a snap-shot approach.

Phase 1 of the ULSRP established a model of the client experience built with the inputs of a team of practicing ULS legal professionals (LPs). Client survey questions were developed, and a tool created to facilitate collecting data from clients on their ULS experience. A reporting system and data portal were also developed to store, analyze and present the incoming client experience data, along with complementary data provided by the LPs on the details of those same legal service events on which the clients provided responses. The client experience, along with the legal professional’s input, together have brought a voice to the “heartbeat” of ULS services in BC.

Phase 1 of the ULSRP achieved its primary objectives, which were to validate support of the evaluation survey tools and questions with real ULS clients and to assess the willingness of LPs to participate in getting the survey into the hands of their clients.

Here are two of the anonymous comments received from clients who provided feedback on the

Service [ Note 1}:

“This service is essential. We need more of this service and other self service functions. The legal process needs to be simplified so regular people can access it.”

“My unbundled service allowed me to allocate the funds that would have been consumed by legal fees to keep my home. It also helped build my trust in the judicial system. It helped shape my own confidence in managing my legal matters in such a way as to not overuse the courts and stay in a course to settlement.”

 And, two comments from legal professionals who participated in the project:

“If legal coaching/unbundling is to be seen as a viable practice model, then work needs to

be done to remove some of the uncertainty and unknowns. The ULS project is doing just that; it is collecting and measuring data in five key areas where information has only been anecdotal thus far. This type of measurable data will be critical for any lawyer interested in pursuing a legal coaching/ unbundled practice model. It will guide lawyers on what is possible and where they can dedicate their time and effort to ensure success.”

Laurel Dietz, Lawyer – Alinea Legal Coaching

“The client feedback tool is a great resource for unbundled practitioners who strive to be more client centered as it enables them to respond to client needs and adjust their services accordingly.”

Marcus M. Sixta, Lawyer & Founder – Crossroads Law, Coach My Case

The purpose of Phase 1 was to determine whether this novel approach (focusing on client feedback) would be a viable way of evaluating unbundled legal services. We believe it is. We are seeking funding for Phase 2 which would use the improved Phase 1 working model to capture data from a broader group of legal professionals (starting with the BC Family Unbundling Roster) and beyond. This will help us to better understand whether unbundling is meeting the needs of clients and legal professionals AND what needs to change to make it work better.

This approach is designed to test a particular method of providing legal services. We acknowledge that client experience is only one of many factors relevant to measuring the overall value of a particular legal professional’s service. For that larger purpose, Noel Semple proposed a helpful model to compare the value of offerings from different law firms. It has four elements: Effectiveness, affordability, client experience and third-party effects. As he rightly points out, “third party effects – the impact the service-provider has on people other than the client – are also important in some niches”. At the same time, he does confirm that clients MUST always be consulted. Our model begins by focusing on the client’s own assessment of effectiveness (“progress”) and affordability (in addition to agency, discoverability and convenience). While data from others such as judges, opposing counsel, court service staff etc. may well enhance the assessment, we decided to start with the clients themselves. Why? Because we are determined to be client-centred and to do it consistently and well.

As our report points out, legal professionals tend to make assumptions about client goals and priorities which are often wrong. Continuous client feedback is needed to allow course corrections and fine-tuning of service delivery. While the Law Society of BC collects and investigates client “complaints” (negative feedback), they are often extreme cases and reported too late in the day to allow real-time improvement. We need access to both negative and positive experiences (bright spots) to better understand client experience across the spectrum and, in this case, to evaluate the effectiveness of unbundling.

Any yet, lawyers are not asking for client feedback. Teresa Matich of Clio says:

“There’s lots of room for improvement in the legal industry overall: In fact, most firms aren’t even collecting feedback from their clients to help improve their businesses. 42% of firms surveyed only collected feedback casually, and 37% said they didn’t collect feedback at all.”

In her recent Slaw column, Heather Gray-Grant came to the same conclusion for BC law firms.

In the bigger picture, we hope that this report and Phase 2 will spur the legal community to continuously seek and use client feedback data across a variety of practice areas. It can only be a good thing.

We are grateful to our funders, to our partner Standpoint Decisions Inc., and to our colleagues in other jurisdictions for their support and inspiration about unbundling.

We welcome any questions and comments!

Note 1: The tool collected 24 anonymous client comments which are listed in full in Appendix A to the report. This kind of valuable information will improve how professionals make decisions about service delivery in the future.

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