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Bar News - February 13, 2009

Unbundled Services Can Help Attorneys Do Pro Bono Work


Catherine E. Shanelaris

Family law is an increasingly complex area of the law in light of the many recent NH Supreme Court cases providing instruction and guidance on everything from interstate child support to the division of hybrid retirement accounts. It is for this reason that many divorces and parenting matters are more detailed, specialized and, as a tangential consequence, more lengthy and expensive. With family law comprising about 60 percent of its caseload, the NH Bar Associationís Pro Bono Referral Program often has difficulty referring complex domestic cases in litigation because of the dedication necessary for time and understanding of the issues.

I am an avid proponent of doing pro bono work. When asked why I do it, I say that it is not because I feel it is either obligatory or purely altruistic, but that I feel good helping others and receive a great deal of satisfaction when I share my education and knowledge of the law with those who are not empowered by the same opportunities I had. I enjoy assisting a client navigate the legal system, as the clients often have a fear of the court process. I was helped by many people along the way in my legal career and doing pro bono work is a nice way to pay it forward.

With the economy being what it is, the Pro Bono Referral Program faces deepening challenges in trying to refer more complicated domestic relations cases. When some cases are viewed by the totality of circumstances, they can present a Herculean task for any attorney to sign on to. But the choice is not all-or-nothing when it comes to volunteering with Pro Bono. With the approval of the Professional Rule of Conduct 1.2(f), or the Limited Representation Rule, attorneys can volunteer to assist a deserving, low-income family law client for just a portion of the case. The Rule (also known as the unbundled services rule) essentially provides that an attorney can limit representation to part of the case and withdraw after the limited work is completed, as permitted by the Court Rules (see Family Division Rule 1.19 as a guide).

Assisting a client on a limited basis can mean many things to that client, from representation at one specific hearing, such as a temporary hearing or pretrial conference, or perhaps attending a court-ordered mediation session and then withdrawing from the case. I have several clients who have requested that I represent them only to draft documents for a hearing and other clients who are representing themselves pro se who meet with me to "consult" on an as-need basis as they work on interrogatories, discovery requests or to prepare for their own hearings. That said, not every client or case is appropriate for unbundled services and the Program will always need attorneys who can go the distance.

The Pro Bono Referral Program also has a mentoring program, which can link volunteers with experienced family law attorneys to consult with over the course of a case, whether unbundled or for full representation. This is also a great way to gain experience in the family law area while helping qualified Pro Bono Referral Program clients.

With the help of the unbundled services rules, it is much easier to commit to a portion of a family case without expending large quantities of time and donated legal fees. My personal philosophy is that I can certainly handle at least one pro bono matter at a time and I try to always take on another pro bono matter as I complete one. With the demands and requests for cash financial donations from many extremely worthy causes in our difficult economy, donating time to the Pro Bono Referral Program on an unbundled services basis is an easy way to make a "donation" without writing a check, but with the enormous satisfaction of knowing you have made a very personal and direct difference in someoneís life.

Catherine E. Shanelaris is a family law attorney practicing at Shanelaris & Schrich in Nashua.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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