by Christopher T. Saccardi
Every day in Massachusetts state courts, people take on the burden of representing themselves in civil cases. While there are a number of reasons for this, the principal factor is obvious: lawyers are expensive, and many individuals simply can’t afford them.
There are no easy solutions to this problem, but Limited Assistance Representation (LAR), which was introduced in Massachusetts in 2009 and has been expanding through the trial courts, can help. It allows litigants to retain counsel for an essential phase of litigation, or for a crucial hearing, at a cost that is much less than what an attorney might charge to represent the client for a full case. LAR also allows an attorney to offer pro bono services for a particular litigation event without having to commit to taking on an entire case.
While this article draws primarily on procedures and experience with LAR in Housing Court to introduce practitioners to LAR, highlight its benefits, and identify key issues and potential pitfalls, the rules are very similar in the other courts in which LAR is now available to civil litigants—the District Court, the Boston Municipal Court, Probate and Family Court, and the Superior Court.
Under LAR, attorneys are permitted to represent clients on a limited basis after registering with the appropriate court and watching a short video or attending a training on the mechanics of LAR. The duration of the representation can vary by agreement reached between counsel and client. Representations can be as short as a single hearing or discrete task, or they can cover a longer period of time, such as assisting through the completion of discovery or even preparing for and conducting a trial.
For example, common parts of a Housing Court case that are particularly conducive to LAR are: answering or drafting discovery requests; drafting and filing motions; appearing to argue a motion, such as a motion to vacate a default judgment or to issue an execution; conducting a mediation with a Housing Specialist; or trying a summary process (eviction) case.
The mechanics of appearing and withdrawing under LAR vary slightly from court to court, but generally follow the same basic parameters throughout the Commonwealth: attorney and client must sign an agreement that details the specific nature of the representation and the tasks and period of time to be included. The attorney will then complete a set of LAR appearance and withdrawal forms that can be obtained from the appropriate court (or online) and which must be signed by both the client and the attorney. The withdrawal is filed as soon as the representation ends; in the case of LAR for a discrete hearing, it is not unusual to file the limited appearance form at the beginning of the hearing and to file the withdrawal in open court immediately following the conclusion of the hearing.
While LAR can be a convenient tool for both attorney and client, it does present some unique challenges that are important for practitioners to keep in mind. Litigants can risk disjointed or incomplete counsel from an LAR attorney who focuses narrowly on the specific task at hand without considering the overall litigation strategy. Or, a client who engages an attorney only to draft a motion could be ill-served, even if the motion is excellent, if the LAR agreement does not provide for properly preparing the client to argue that motion. It is therefore important for both attorney and client to carefully consider the appropriate duration of the representation and the way in which the included tasks will be defined. A failure to do this can lead to awkward situations, as a judge will occasionally not allow the LAR withdrawal if he or she feels that an additional task should be completed by the attorney. For example, a judge will sometimes ask the LAR attorney to postpone the withdrawal after a hearing in order to receive a copy of the decision and explain it to the client.
Another challenge can result if it is unclear to opposing counsel when exactly an LAR attorney has entered and, more importantly, has exited the case. Not knowing whether the adverse party is represented or is pro se can hamper the ability of opposing counsel to negotiate a resolution or simply to communicate about procedural issues. Timely providing copies of the limited appearance and withdrawal to opposing counsel is therefore critically important.
Housing Court Standing Order 1-10, which governs LAR in the Housing Court, contains several requirements counsel must follow to help avoid those potential pitfalls. For example, the signature block of any document filed by an LAR attorney must indicate that it is filed under a LAR representation; a failure to do this could convert the engagement from limited to full representation. The Standing Order also requires opposing counsel to serve documents related to matters within the scope of the limited representation on both the LAR counsel and the party. Similar rules apply in other courts. See, e.g., BMC Standing Order 1-10, District Court Standing Order 1-11, Superior Court Standing Order 2-17, and a memo and FAQ regarding LAR in Probate and Family Court. The LAR page on the Massachusetts state website provides a good summary of the various LAR rules, along with links to FAQs, standing orders, and court forms.
In sum, LAR can be a valuable tool, especially in courts that serve a large population of unrepresented parties. It can be used on a pro bono basis or for paying clients, and can be a helpful way to provide assistance to a party with a critical piece of litigation at considerably lower cost than full representation. Judges are generally appreciative of LAR attorneys because they understand that often the alternative is no representation at all. So long as counsel give careful consideration to how they delineate the duration of the representation and are familiar with the applicable rules, LAR can be a useful part of any practice.
Chris Saccardi, formerly a litigation associate at Edwards Angell Palmer and Dodge, LLP, opened his own practice in 2010 in which he focuses exclusively on landlord-tenant law. He was named to the BBA’s Public Interest Leadership program in 2012-2013 and has served as Co-Chair of the BBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section.