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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

A Cheaper, Easier Way to Divorce

Law: Support grows for new approach that assigns only specific issues to an attorney. But some lawyers say it's unfair to clients.

September 25, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With support from local bar associations, several Ventura County lawyers are promoting a program they say will make it easier and cheaper to get a divorce.

Pioneered by a Los Angeles family lawyer, "unbundling" allows clients to decide which issues in a case--from custody to pensions to property division--will be handled by an attorney.

The plan falls on the heels of a similar program that started earlier this month when a group of attorneys opened Ventura County Collaborative Family Law Group, a nonprofit organization that encourages couples to mediate their divorces in a conference room instead of a courtroom.

Both practices, advocates say, revolutionize the delivery of legal services by saving the client money and the attorney time and by freeing up the court's calendar. They say clients with attorneys are more likely to settle their cases in mediation without ever appearing before judges.

"I hope that this will become standard procedure rather than a novel idea," said Charles Campbell, presiding judge of Ventura County courts.

But some attorneys say they fear malpractice suits if they don't handle an entire case themselves. They are also worried that they aren't being fair to their clients if they just work on a single issue.

In the past, legal ethics have obligated attorneys to take cases from start to finish and charge accordingly. But now, in family law courtrooms across the state and the nation, judges are increasingly allowing lawyers to tailor their services to the clients' wishes.

The county's Mexican American Bar Assn. recently passed a resolution endorsing the task-by-task services. The association plans to initiate a pilot program this fall with as many as 25 experienced family law attorneys.

The Ventura County Bar Assn. also approved a resolution last week, supporting "the spirit, intent and concept" of unbundling as a way to increase "access to justice for all people." The president of the association signed the resolution, as did the chair of the Voluntary Lawyers Services Program and the county's presiding judge. The Family Law Bar plans to give its support to the program this week.

Family law attorneys in Northern California's Contra Costa County began offering task-by-task services three years ago. The California Judicial Council, a state association of judges and court administrators, has discussed unbundling. Attorneys from all over the country will attend the first national conference on unbundled services next month in Baltimore.

"Unbundling is really hot in the legal community right now," said M. Sue Talia, a family law practitioner in Contra Costa County who offers training sessions around the state. "It's just amazing--the demand for this. The average citizen just doesn't have access to the legal system."

One member of the local Mexican American Bar Assn. compared unbundling to taking a car to the shop. It's cheaper and quicker to get a tuneup rather than an engine overhaul.

But other attorneys counter that each part of the car engine affects every other piece, so unbundling may not be the best way to handle the growing number of unrepresented people.

"If you look at a client's bundle of problems, they all relate," said Michael Case, president of the Ventura County Bar Assn. "So if you do one in a vacuum, what's the effect on the others?"

The rising cost of divorce has fueled the unbundling movement. Private attorneys may charge $5,000 to $10,000 to handle an entire divorce, compared with $500 to $1,000 to deal with only one aspect.

Legal scholars agree that the family law system has become increasingly complex and difficult for clients to maneuver. Clients filing for divorce often want to resolve disputes over property, pensions, child custody, and child and spousal support. Each of those issues could require the client to jump through several hoops, such as completing complicated paperwork, appearing in court and paying fees.

Low-income litigants in criminal court have access to free representation, but there isn't such an opportunity in family law court. So in the last several years, courts have seen a dramatic rise in the number of "pro per" litigants, or people representing themselves. Ventura County court officials estimate that about 65% of clients appear without an attorney.

Judges expect unbundling to reduce this number.

One client who might welcome unbundling is 29-year-old Lisa Andrade. The Oxnard resident recently filed for divorce and is trying to get full custody of her three daughters. Since she cannot afford to pay an attorney, she is representing herself in family court but finds that she is overwhelmed by the paperwork and procedure.

"It's a headache and was really confusing at first," Andrade said.

Family law attorneys hope the state Legislature will pass a law on unbundled services or will amend the Family Law Code to allow unbundling as a standard way to handle divorces. They said they've approached Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), an attorney, for help.

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