In thumbing through the September 2012 issue of Consumer Reports, my “thumbing” came to a halt, somewhere between best values on cars (my Toyota Highlander ranked high, as did my wife’s Camry) and televisions (I could have done better), when the monthly money column headline “Legal DIY sites no match for a pro” stopped me in my tracks.
Would CR tell its readership that the do-it-yourself web sites for legal information (not “advice”, because we know they can’t do that) would suffice when it comes to the “simple”–a will, a trademark, forming an LLC, getting a divorce, a real estate lease. Of course, if you are an IP attorney, a real estate lawyer, a family law attorney–you would (and should) take offense at the idea that your practice can be replaced by a cyber-lawyer (and I don’t mean a lawyer doing cyberlaw, I mean an automated machine). And thankfully for most of us, CR agrees. You probably need a lawyer to review and/or draft anything that goes beyond the extremely mundane.
The article leads by saying that for a fraction of what you’d pay a lawyer, websites such as LegalZoom, Nolo and Rocket Lawyer can help you create your own will, power of attorney, etc. ..and those sites are full of pleased customers that have avoided dreaded attorney fees from the comfort of a desktop.
Often the most recognized by GEN POP (my cute prison jargon way of referring to a general consumer audience) is LegalZoom–fronted by famed O.J. Simpson counsel Robert Shapiro. (As an aside, I would note that while Shapiro took to the Internet to cash in on some of his notoriety, the late Johnnie Cochrane lent his name to what amounts to personal injury franchises that are still heavily marketed to the daytime TV viewers of soaps and game shows. Both clever uses of legal marketing, I might add). LZ (as I refer to the site, ’cause we’re buddies) has advertised heavily on TV and in print (and online, of course) for many years. There is a mixed level of discomfort among lawyers as it relates to LZ–in many cases, there are arguments against them in relation to “unauthorized practice of law” (really, unfair competition) and concern that consumers are being led away and maybe misled (in relation to identifying all potential legal issues). Of course, sites like this are also employing many attorneys as well. For a small fee, you can even keep one on a monthly retainer, so the idea that the sites are limited to “do it yourself” is not really true today.
I think of myself as a pretty good lawyer, but I don’t really do “wills”, which is why I hired a guy that does when my wife and I updated ours (after each kid, in case you have failed to do so yourself, you should). I hired a real estate lawyer when we bought and sold a house. And when forming HTMLawyers, Inc., I tried to do the trademark work myself before realizing I probably needed a real IP lawyer. I did, however, manage to DIY for formation of my corporation. The moral being that an educated consumer such as myself still went to a real lawyer that charged me real dollars over a DIY.
Of course, the beauty of the Internet and lawyer marketing in general is that it allows a smart consumer to do his/her research, many lawyers have lowered costs through virtual law practices and various forms of automation for the bulk of a transaction, and there is no reason you can’t find a better “deal” if that is what you seek. Having said all of this, I’d say that a reputable DIY site is better than no attorney at all, and in many cases, they are helping to generate revenue for some legit, licensed lawyers that need some extra cash and clients. It is nice to see, though, that CR still sees a need for a lawyer from time to time.