Legal Coaching

The Lawyer as Coach? A New Model of Unbundling in Family Law

The NSRLP is thrilled to announce we are embarking on a major project in 2017 on “legal coaching,” led by NSRLP Research Fellow, Nikki Gershbain!

What is “legal coaching”?

Many lawyers are familiar with the concept of unbundling, also known as limited scope representation, a practical, innovative response to the access to justice problem. Allowing lawyers and clients to unbundle the various components of a legal matter has been shown to increase access and improve outcomes for those litigants who are able to purchase at least some legal services. A small number of self-represented litigants (SRLs) in the 2013 National Study (just 17 out of 259) told us they had used unbundled legal services, but many more tried and failed to find a lawyer who would assist them this way.

Legal “coaching” is the next natural step in the evolution of the unbundling model, building on the needs articulated by SRLs in the National 2013 study. Virtually every SRL interviewed said they had looked (usually without success) for affordable “unbundled” services – but they also told us what they really wanted was someone in their corner who could provide ongoing support and assistance at key moments in their case. They also described wanting to be an active participant in that relationship (a common theme in professional relationships in many professional areas in the age of the Internet).

Both unbundling and coaching provide clients with an opportunity to choose from an à la carte menu of legal services. However, coaching offers those who are primarily self-representing some very practical advantages that SRLs tell us they want:

  1. Coaching assumes an ongoing relationship between the lawyer and client. The legal coach provides more than one-off assistance with discrete tasks, and instead offers ongoing guidance and mentorship throughout the case.
  2. Unlike the unbundling lawyer, the legal coach won’t necessarily take charge of every discrete task on her own. The legal coach and the client will roll up their sleeves together, reducing costs even further while at the same time building the client’s capacity to take the next step. By working hand in hand with the lawyer on her case, the client will be better positioned to understand the theory of her case and how to achieve the outcome she’s looking for. Coaching tasks will vary depending on the needs of the client, the client’s capacity to take on different pieces of the work, and/or the budget available. On any one case a coach might offer advice, draft parts of a document, review the client’s work and offer feedback, or even appear in court.
  3. Coaching is a partnership, allowing the lawyer and client to work as a team. The legal coach will be called upon to train, guide and mentor the client, without losing sight of the client’s own expertise. The goal of the legal coach is to maximize the client’s potential to take the next step by themselves. Successful legal coaches will be skilled in building trusting relationships with clients, flexible in adapting to different clients’ levels of ability and need, and prepared to modify the scope of the retainer as the case unfolds.

What will NSRLP’s legal coaching project do?

The NSRLP is delighted to have Nikki Gershbain on board to lead our legal coaching project. Over the course of 2017, Nikki will consult with both lawyers and SRLs, develop a training program for lawyers interested in becoming effective legal coaches, and undertake outreach to legal institutions, practitioners and law students to encourage the integration of coaching services into family law practices and legal training.

Nikki is eminently qualified to conduct this research. A former family lawyer and longstanding access to justice advocate, Nikki earned her LL.B. from U of T in 2000 and was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002. She clerked at the Ontario Court of Appeal and then practiced at Epstein Cole LLP in Toronto, where she worked on family law cases at all court levels including the Supreme Court of Canada. Nikki is a member of Legal Aid Ontario’s Family Law Advisory Committee, and recently served as a member of the Honourable Justice Annemarie Bonkalo’s Advisory Committee for the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Review of Family Law. From 2004-2010, Nikki served as Executive Director of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, where she co-led, with Professor Michael Trebilcock, a research and teaching project on access to the civil legal justice system for lower- and middle-income Canadians. Nikki is currently on leave as National Director of Pro Bono Students Canada, where she has been developing award-winning access to justice programs since 2010. In 2013 and again in 2015, Nikki was nominated as one of Canadian Lawyer’s top 25 for her work with PBSC.

The NSRLP is grateful to the Law Foundation of Ontario for awarding Nikki a Community Leaders in Justice Fellowship, which has made this project possible.

Contact us if you would like to be involved in NSRLP’s coaching project!

If you have any questions or comments about this project, please contact Nikki at nikki.gershbain@utoronto.ca. We will look forward to updating NSRLPs broad community of justice system professionals and SRLs as this work unfolds.