ARE DIY LEGAL SERVICES RIGHT FOR YOU? MAYBE, MAYBE NOT….
Earlier this week, I came across an article on the Consumerist web site about “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) options for writing your own will. Their conclusions: the three programs they tested (LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Quicken WillMaker Plus) were adequate for very simple estates, but even so, it’s probably best to consult with an experienced estate planning specialist familiar with your state’s laws.
I read the article and then moved on to the rest of my day. On Tuesday, however, the issue of DIY legal services again came to my attention. The United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri issued an Order in a class action suit against LegalZoom (read the Order here). The court ruled that part of the services provided by LegalZoom constitutes the unauthorized practice of law under Missouri statute.
LegalZoom provides two basic services. First, as the Missouri court states, it:
[O]ffers blank legal forms that customers may download, print, and fill in themselves. Among the blank legal forms customers may download from the LegalZoom website are affidavits, bills of sale, letters, releases, promissory notes, and various types of agreements.
These are similar to forms provided by other websites and programs, and aren’t the subject of the lawsuit.
Where LegalZoom apparently got into trouble with the Missouri court was with its internet portal. Rather than simply downloading blank documents and filling them out themselves, a customer can fill out an online questionnaire, after which LegalZoom’s software prepares the document. LegalZoom employees then review the document for proper formatting and sends it to the customer in the mail. For intellectual property documents (copyright, trademark, and patent applications), LegalZoom will even file the documents directly with the appropriate government office.
The court ruled that this service was the unauthorized practice of law under Missouri statute:
Thus, LegalZoom’s internet portal sells more than merely a good (i.e., a kit for self help) but also a service (i.e., preparing that legal document). Because those that provide that service are not authorized to practice law in Missouri, there is a clear risk of the public being served in legal matters by “incompetent or unreliable persons.”
A similar case has been filed in Alabama, requesting that LegalZoom be permanently prohibited from creating legal documents and related services for Alabama residents. There has been a lot of debate, particularly in the ABA’s eLawyering Task Force, of the difference between “self help” legal sites or software and document processing services (Lawyerist has a very good summary of the debate here).
Neophyte Lawyer’s Thoughts:
Each state has statutes prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law. And each state has rules or provisions defining the practice of law. Some people see these laws and rules as a means to protect a perceived “monopoly” on access to the legal system by the legal profession. Others see these laws as necessary to protect consumers from the drastic consequences of improperly prepared documents.
LegalZoom and other similar companies are, to an extent, blazing new trails in providing low-cost legal services to people who would not otherwise be able or willing to consult with a lawyer. Rather than banning them completely, perhaps it is time to re-examine our definitions of what constitutes the practice of law, and how we can co-exist with these providers.
The documents and forms provided by the DIY services can be very useful tools. They can help you focus on the important issues and questions regarding your case. As a lawyer, of course, I would always suggest that you talk to a lawyer licensed in your state before executing any document you downloaded from any of them, however. As LegalZoom’s disclaimer states, it is not a law firm and cannot provide legal advice. Only an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction can do that.
If you are worried about the cost of consulting with an attorney, think of it this way: If you can’t afford to do it right in the first place, how will you be able to afford to correct it later?