As a lawyer, I attend legal conferences and participate in telephone and online discussions with colleagues from all over the country. One frequent topic of conversation is the serious problems that can occur when clients purchase legal documents from LegalZoom or another legal services website. Many times, these clients end up spending two or three times the amount of time and money to fix problems arising from these generic legal services. I think it is important to address this growing problem.
With the rise of the internet has come a proliferation of online services. In our modern society, a person can manage bank accounts, make investments, file taxes, shop, and consume various forms of entertainment without ever leaving home. Inevitably, some lawyers have gotten in on the game, and created websites, such as LegalZoom (founded by Robert Shapiro, former defense attorney for OJ Simpson), which provide users with legal forms for various situations, such as starting a business or creating a will. On the surface, these services appear to save money and time by bypassing the use of a real lawyer. Upon further consideration, though, there are many good reasons why you should consult a real, live lawyer for your legal needs.
Here are 5 good reasons why Legal Zoom and similar do-it-yourself sites are not a good idea:
1. The products are not customized for your legal needs.
Do you trust WebMD as a replacement for your doctor? Of course not. Why not? Because, unlike a website, your doctor does not examine your symptoms in a vacuum. Instead, your doctor looks at your symptoms as part of your overall health, then makes an informed diagnosis and recommends effective treatment based on a variety of factors. The role of a lawyer is very similar.
At your consultation, your lawyer will ask questions designed to assess your legal “symptoms”, and will then recommend a solution that is tailored to your particular needs, as well as being within the parameters of your state and local laws. This is where LegalZoom falls short. They offer generic solutions. Only a real, live attorney conducting an in-person consultation can provide the personal service that is crucial to effectively solving your legal problem.
2. The forms may be invalid.
When ordering forms online, there is no guarantee that they will actually work. In fact, the websites display disclaimers that the forms you order are not guaranteed for any particular purpose. Sure, you may be able to obtain a refund within 60 days, but will that be helpful five years down the road when your family is dealing with a contested will or an invalid power of attorney? Or when your business is involved in litigation that could have been avoided by correctly drafted formation documents?
For an example, read this article about a dying man who created an estate plan on LegalZoom. When the documents proved to be invalid, LegalZoom refused to fix the problems. He unfortunately passed away before the issue could be resolved and his family filed a lawsuit (LegalZoom settled out of court).
Also, different states have different rules for how to make your documents valid. Does your will need two witnesses? Should a document be notarized? How exactly do LLC members approve the company’s operating agreement? When it comes to legally “breathing life” into your generic online documents, you’re on your own.
When a real, live attorney handles your situation, she/he puts their professional reputation on the line. You can rest assured that they will make sure your documents are valid, and if a problem arises later, that attorney will be there to work with you, your family, or your business to resolve your issues.
3. Online legal services are actually slower than an attorney.
The turn-around time for legal documents on LegalZoom can be up to a month, unless you pay expensive expediting fees. An attorney can often prepare documents in a matter of days, particularly if you let her/him know that you are in a rush.
4. Pricing problems
Online legal services websites use one-size-fits-all pricing for their products, no matter what your situation. A good attorney will work with his/her clients, and arrive at a price that is fair to the client. A lawyer will understand that, for example, a small start-up business may not have the same resources (or the same needs) as an larger, established client.
Another pricing problem is that the advertised prices for LegalZoom and similar sites are rarely the prices you will actually pay. The experience is not unlike buying a car or a computer: all of the “extras” add up fast. Often, these “extras” are things that your attorney would have done for little or no cost.
5. Lack of an ongoing relationship
What happens when you have a question about the documents you purchased online? You call customer service and speak to a representative who is probably not an attorney, has no responsibility to you as a client, and may or may not give you the correct answer.
What happens when you have a question about documents drafted by your lawyer? You call his/her office and speak to the lawyer, maybe make an appointment, or even just drop by. Your lawyer is familiar with your issues and will provide ongoing support. Further, you lawyer will often contact you if there is a change in the law or your documents need to be updated for some reason.
If you are thinking about using LegalZoom or a similar online legal service, I hope this post makes you think twice. If you have already used LegalZoom, I recommend that you contact an attorney to review your documents, to ensure they are valid and up to date.