Building materials are available at hardware stores and lumberyards. Most tax forms are available online, and there are an abundance of tax software programs on the market. Online real estate sites are making inroads into the MLS, a source of information that was monopolized by realtors. Are lawyers going the way of the craftsman, accountant, and realtor with the rise of online legal research and online legal document sites?
When one is fixing up around the house, there is a time and place for a do-it-yourselfer (DIY) to do the work. When one is doing a basic tax return, or starting a real estate search, doing it yourself is probably not a bad jumping off point. And, when one is selling one’s car, buying an appliance, handling a moving violation, or handling a small claims matter it is probably fine to handle the legal work on a DIY basis.
How Complicated Could It Be?
Where people tend to run afoul is when they believe a legal matter is not that difficult. On the surface this can be true, but if you know one thing about life it’s that the simplest thing has a way of twisting itself into the complex if things are not handled correctly from the start. Take our craftsman as an example. Knocking down a wall and re-routing its electricity and plumbing is not all that difficult for a skilled tradesman, but if a DIY crosses just one wire, or forgets to turn the water off before he starts, then that quick weekend project has the DIY calling in a professional and paying emergency rates. Similarly, it is not difficult for a realtor who knows the area inventory and area amenities to locate one’s dream home. Likewise, it is also a snoozer for a seasoned banker to get you the right kind of loan, the right kind of account, and the right kind of financial portfolio management to handle a business’s changing and growing financial needs.
A lawyer offers you something that online advice or an online form document never can: the ability to hear what your needs are, ask questions to better understand what your objectives are, and then advise and draft in a way that makes the entire transaction fit your specific needs. The efficiency at which a seasoned lawyer can handle this can give the illusion that it was all fairly simple; much the way a professional golfer makes a sand shot that ends up a foot from the hole seem to the casual observer as nothing more than a routine play.
I am not here to say legal forms don’t have a place in the law, because they are usually a decent starting point. A starting point is just that, which is a bare bones, one-size-fits-all form document that has some decent core provisions. The difference and the value comes in when the lawyer tailors the “stock document” or advice to one’s specific facts, the legal standing and status of the parties, state and federal statutes, municipal codes, current case-law developments, local procedures and practices used by the courts, experiences the lawyer has had firsthand, and of course the client’s specific goals and objectives. Legal forms have limitations, and the websites that offer legal forms fully recognize those limitations when they caution users that their documents do not take any of the issues just mentioned into account. For instance, one such online provider’s disclaimer states:
“…At no time do we review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation. [Name of Provider] and its services are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.
Although [Provider] takes every reasonable effort to ensure that the information on our website and documents are up-to-date and legally sufficient, the legal information on this site is not legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. Because the law changes rapidly, is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and is also subject to varying interpretations by different courts and certain government and administrative bodies, [Provider] cannot guarantee that all the information on the site is completely current. The law is a personal matter, and no general information or legal tool like the kind [Provider] provides can fit every circumstance…”
Importantly, these online providers do not stand behind their advice and the documents that are created. From the same provider’s disclaimer, it goes on to state:
“…[Provider] is not responsible for any loss, injury, claim, liability, or damage related to your use of this site or any site linked to this site, whether from errors or omissions in the content of our site or any other linked sites, from the site being down or from any other use of the site. In short, your use of the site is at your own risk.”
Attorneys, on the other hand, stand behind their work and have malpractice insurance coverage to cover those rare instances when their advice and counsel is actionably wrong.
Reduce Your Risk
When one is starting a business it is usually a “bet the farm” proposition. People do not generally start a business because they are bored and need a hobby. Most companies start with someone who believes that they could earn a living by offering their product or service. That business venture deserves to start off on the best footing possible and using the wrong online form can put you at risk on many levels. Starting a business is already plenty risky. Even the most brazen gamblers look to reduce some risk in their bets. Eliminating risk is always a good thing, and getting advice from people who have expertise in starting a business and other business and legal matters does reduce the risk, and it has the added value of allowing the entrepreneur to focus on the products or services they are trying to get to market.
While forms and online legal documents can be helpful, it is not a substitute for an experienced professional who has launched many other successful enterprises, and has also been witness to the causes of business failures. Learning what works and what does not can be an expensive and time consuming proposition. Tapping into the knowledge and experience of those who have lived through both triumphs and catastrophes provide a depth and measure of value with which online services simply cannot compete.
Whether starting a new business or venturing into a new product line or area of business, it is wise to do research, check out templates and forms, read about similar business models, get familiarized with contract formation, and learn how others have succeeded or avoided pitfalls. Those online resources will help one to get a decent understanding of your legal needs and how they intersect with business objectives. From there, it is also a good idea to take what is found online and spend a few minutes talking with a lawyer to see if the research and form documents fit the business’s specific needs or in what way the research or document might need to be improved to increase the chances of achieving your business’s goals.
One last piece of unsolicited advice: When searching out legal advice, find a lawyer who expresses interest in the business or idea; one who asks good, probing questions or plays devil’s advocate to test the business ideas being presented. There is no substitute for passionate counsel, and that is not something that can be found on a website or on a form that can be completed online.
This document is intended for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for consultation with a licensed legal professional in a particular case or circumstance.
Kurt M. Carlson | Creditors’ Rights, Insolvency & Bankruptcy Litigation & Resolution
Kurt’s practice concentrates on representing creditors, assignees and businesses of all sizes in a variety of ways, including complex business litigation, workouts, insolvency proceedings, bankruptcy reorganization cases and complex settlement negotiations. Kurt has extensive experience in a broad range of quasi-business and legal issues companies must address. If you need assistance with a related matter, contact Kurt.