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Self-representation done right

A new group of legal professionals, working behind the scenes, are empowering their clients to represent themselves in a range of matters.

Jo-Anne Stark
Jo-Anne Stark, Stark Solutions

Legal coaches provide a valuable service to clients seeking legal advice, but still want to represent themselves and file their own documents.

“A legal coach is a professional who has a legal education and experience and empowers their clients who are representing themselves in legal matters,” explains Jo-Anne Stark, a legal coach and consultant with Stark Solutions.

Legal coaches provide a range of services, including helping self-represented litigants write letters, prepare and file court documents. They assist them with planning their strategy in court and what to say. They are also on hand to help them review the legal options available to them, says Stark.

The types of clients they serve are typically involved in family or civil disputes, landlord and tenant issues, or minor criminal offences. Some need to prepare for tribunal hearings and administrative matters.

Regardless, it’s the coach’s job to empower their clients to represent themselves, says Stark.

“The client is the only one who would, for example, appear in court or would be filing their own documents, so really they are the ones who are in charge of their legal matter,” she says. “What they are asking for is a little bit of assistance along the way because our justice system is pretty complex. They need someone who understands the rules and procedures and what legal issues they should be focusing on.”

Legal coaching is a form of a limited scope legal service, but not the same as unbundled legal services, says Stark.

“With legal coaching, the client is taking on the responsibility of doing the legal work with the support of a coach,” explains Stark, adding that the legal coach’s name typically would not appear on court records, letters to opposing counsel, or in any other communication.

Another way that legal coaching differs from unbundled legal services is that the coaching relationship can be long-term.

“You may have regular coaching sessions designed to assist the client through the entire process, so it's not a one and done kind of legal service,” Stark says.

As legal coaching is primarily pay-as-you-go, affordability is one advantage for clients, says Stark. “Clients really love legal coaching services because generally, you never have to pay a retainer,” she says. “It can be helpful from a financial perspective if they know how much they are paying every month.”

“Coaching is more accessible financially,” says Marcus M. Sixta, a lawyer who offers legal coaching services in B.C. and Alberta through Coach my Case. “Without legal coaching, there are many people who would have no access to any legal information or services other than what they can scrounge up online through a Google search.”

Clients can benefit from some form of legal assistance throughout their legal matter for protracted legal matters that can drag on for years.

“There are a vast number of people in the middle class who make too much money to access pro bono or legal aid services but who do not have enough money to retain a lawyer or a law firm in a traditional role for a long term,” says Stark.

Another advantage is that the client has complete control over their case, says Sixta. “They decide when they want to see their lawyer. They decide what issues they want to talk to their lawyer about,” he says. “We can provide a client with a service that is suited to their individual needs -- their legal needs and financial needs. Clients can choose how much help they want and when they need help.”

Legal coaching also helps the courts run more efficiently, Stark says. A more informed and prepared client will be less inclined to prevent matters from moving along, “as opposed to coming to court being confused about what needed filing when, and resulting in another adjournment.”

Some lawyers also appreciate the freedom that comes with offering legal coaching services.

“I have lawyers who tell me they love it because they have the freedom to help so many more clients, and they are not tied to an office, and they are not forced to work around some demanding court schedule,” says Stark.

Sixta says that lawyers benefit from legal coaching as a career because they “can do it from anywhere” and “accept clients from anywhere. You don’t have to narrow your search for clients just to one geographical region. You can do it all by Zoom.”

Stark’s interest in legal coaching grew out of her career in private practice. She was also an arbitrator in landlord and tenant disputes. During that time, she noticed that self-represented litigants struggled to present their evidence, make their positions known, and understand all the complex rules and procedures.

“I thought to myself, ‘There has to be a better way to help these people navigate the complex legal system. They need to be able to get the help they need,’” says Stark.

In 2019, she launched a non-profit organization called the Legal Coaches Association. Among other training, she offers a 12-hour Certified Legal Coach program for legal professionals who want to learn legal coaching skills and offer these services to members of the public.

Stark recommends that lawyers offering legal coaching services have a detailed retainer agreement to clarify the client’s expectations. She also says that lawyers should document any legal advice they give.

But in her view, the ethical risks are minimized by the value of the service offered to clients.

“They know what things cost; they get regular communication from their legal coach; they are the ones making their own call, what their goal is going to be and what decision they are going to make,” she says. “A lot of people out there just want to get a little bit of help and they are so appreciative of that.”