Going Concerns 1.12.2017
By Nick Oglesby
In the last few weeks, I have noticed an uptick in advertising from do-it-yourself legal service companies. You probably recognize some of the names: LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, LawDepot, etc. The ads must be working, as I recently had a client ask me if I would be willing to review a document that they were planning to purchase from an online vendor. Now, I do not intend for this post to be an indictment of these companies or their services. In fact, the very existence of these companies tells us a lot about consumer expectations and the direction of the legal industry. Rather, I would simply urge caution to those who are considering making their legal matter a DIY affair.
The goals of these companies are legitimate. They want to demystify the industry, and make legal services affordable and accessible. They want to make buying legal services like buying any other product. I share these goals, but only to a certain extent. Here are some thoughts:
A DIY legal customer will fill out a series of blanks, and their responses will be used to populate a form document. The customer can then print the document, sign it, and be on their way. Essentially, these companies allow consumers to buy legal products like they were picking food off of a menu, or a product off of a store shelf. But is it wise to do so? Think of how much foreknowledge you need before making a purchase:
On a trip to the grocery store, you have a list. You made the list out of an understanding of what you need for the coming week, based on recipes that you already had in mind. You know your family’s likes, dislikes, allergies, and nutritional needs. You know which brands delivered quality. You know the difference between “chunk light” and “solid albacore” tuna. Your knowledge allows you to navigate all of the options available to you.
When it comes to legal matters, do you have the same knowledge? Do you know what to buy? Do you understand the questions that are presented in your online form? Do you know the legal implications of one answer versus another? You might have some basics in mind. But knowing you need “a will” is the grocery store equivalent of knowing that you are hungry.
The particularities of your legal situation may necessitate several legal documents. It might require none. It might require a thorough consideration of your insurance plan, your tax liability, your family dynamics, or the trustworthiness of your business partner. Further, legal documents speak to one another. Decisions you have made and contracts you enter may effect subsequent decisions and contracts. Decisions you make now can unmake things that you thought were taken care of. These considerations don’t fit well into an algorithm. So, to the extent of your personal knowledge, be wary.
In all fairness, if you come to a lawyer looking to form a business or complete an estate plan, you’re probably going to receive a questionnaire similar to what you would see on a legal DIY site. And, to the extent possible, lawyers will simply drop your answers into the form documents that we have created.
The difference, when you have a lawyer prepare those documents for you, is the fiduciary relationship that comes with it. “Fiduciary relationship” is more than just flowery language. It reflects the lofty duty that a lawyer owes to his or her clients. This duty is often described in “the four C’s”:
Communication – A lawyer must keep their client reasonably informed about their matter, and to convey the information necessary for their client to make informed decisions.
Conflict Avoidance – A lawyer has a duty of loyalty to their clients. To act in the best interest of the client and no others.
Confidentiality – Your matter stays between you and your lawyer.
Competence – Within reason, the lawyer needs to know what they are talking about.
When you have a lawyer prepare your documents or provide other legal services, the fiduciary relationship comes along too. No such relationship exists when you use DIY legal services. In fact they explicitly disclaim it. If you scroll to the bottom of the legal zoom website, you might see language that looks like this:
“We are not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.”
Again, there is nothing sinister about these companies. They simply want to be upfront about what you’re not getting. Some of the DIY companies do offer programs so that you can interface with real attorneys, for a monthly fee. But at that point you’re paying for legal advice and also buying documents à la carte, and you might well be better served just getting holistic advice on your matter from a local attorney.
The Bottom Line
Any DIY project requires a certain amount of confidence. Consider the learning curve that you need to overcome in order to do the job not only to your own standards, but to the standards recognized at law. The curling piece of linoleum in the bathroom you remodeled might not bother you, but if the whole house ends up going to your scumbag second husband and not your lovable niece, its a bigger deal.
Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time!
This post is intended for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Exposure to this post does not confer any sort of lawyer-client relationship between the author and the reader. The author is not affiliated with LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, or LawDepot. The author understands the irony of this disclaimer in light of the content of the post., but reiterates that the lawyer-client relationship is extremely important, and nobody should think that this post confers such relationship on anyone.