Lawyers Won’t Lose Clients to DIY Legal Services

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Currently, consumers can pick from a range of options for do-it-yourself legal services. You can get a divorce at OfficeMax, a will from Amazon, and dissolve a partnership with LegalZoom. Those are just a few examples, of course. There are hundreds of DIY legal documents available online and offline.

People who want to do their own legal work are, naturally, not likely to hire a lawyer in the first place. And people who hire lawyers do not want to do their own legal work.

Sure, the economy may be encouragement for some people to do their own legal work who would have preferred to hire a lawyer before 2008. The economy may also have encouraged some people to do their own home remodeling who would have preferred to hire a contractor before 2008. But the vast majority of non-DIY consumers have remained non-DIY consumers in both cases. They may put off the work until they can afford it, but they probably aren’t tempted to go it alone.

TurboTax exists, after all, but plenty of people still hire tax preparers and accountants.

So now is not the time to panic.

The time to panic is when the only thing you have to do to get a will or a divorce is push a few buttons. That is not DIY; that is more like hiring a lawyer to do something for you, only cheaper and without the uncomfortable waiting room.

Imagine going to a website for a will. It asks you to allow a one-time connection to your Facebook and Google accounts, then checks public records for any information it cannot get from your online accounts. Then it asks for the name of your guardian before spits out a good-enough will.

This is push-button legal service, not a DIY legal service. There are no complicated forms to fill out or documents to track down and upload. All you have to do is push the button that says Give Me A Will! This is not the stuff of the future, either; it should be possible to build a system like this using current technology. In fact, the Shake app is pretty close, although with a limited range of documents available, most of which do not require any extra information.

So … panic?

Well, if your practice is based on the kind of simple documents Shake has turned into push-button contracts, I would be worried even if Shake did not exist. But plenty of people have practices based on the kind of legal documents that make up most of the DIY legal documents on the market today. And those documents are probably the most likely to be transformed into push-button legal documents. So if my practice were based on them, I would probably be looking for a different practice area or trying to figure out how to offer legal documents with the push of a button myself, first.

Featured image: “Vintage DIY (do it yourself) concept” from Shutterstock.

Practice Management

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  • Paul Spitz

    Twice in the past couple of weeks, people have asked me for free legal documents. In the one case, it was a software license agreement. In the other, it was a work-for-hire agreement. I directed them to a website which has a decent selection of free legal documents. But you still have to know what you need, and what the documents actually say. In the case of the work-for-hire agreement, the person forwarded me a link to a document (which didn’t even contain work-for-hire language), saying that there were so many different documents out there. My response was simple: that’s what lawyers are for.

    Unfortunately, I doubt that either of these people got what they needed, doing it themselves. It is quite possible they will select something that will hurt them. But I’m doing this for a living, and I have to charge for my services. Maybe the complexity will cause them to rethink the wisdom of DIY with documents they don’t understand. Maybe not.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      There are some things I enjoy doing myself. The coding for this website, for example. But my wife knows better than to suggest we should remodel our own bathroom. There is too great a risk of flooding the rest of the house before burning it to the ground.

      Which is a pretty good analogy to DIY legal services, really.

      I think lawyers who are worried about losing business to DIY should start offering more unbundled services. Give clients a lower-cost option without lowering your fees or the quality of the service you provide (just the amount of service you provide), and everyone wins.

      • Paul Spitz

        There’s definitely a place for unbundled services, even for transactional lawyers. I’ll review a contract for someone, with negotiation and review of subsequent drafts being add-on services that the client can select. Or not. But there is a level of presumptuousness involved in asking a lawyer for a free contract, and then wanting the lawyer to help select the right free contract. In retail, it’s called “showrooming.” You go into an electronics store, have the salesman explain the various products to you, and then you go home and buy one of them online.

  • Mark

    In the scenario that Paul has presented an attorney opens themselves to malpractice liability, the fact that they are acting for free and not a fee does not eliminate their obligation to select the right contract and to get all of the relevant facts in order to select that contract. Unbundling services is not likely to eliminate this liability where the attorney fails to inform the client of the potential pitfalls of entering into a certain type of transaction or arrangement and what other options may be available to the client to achieve their ends. I’m not sure that limited representation agreements (note the extra time necessary in very carefully crafting such an agreement to withstand a malpractice case should the client claim that you should have informed them to use such and such an agreement instead of the one they asked for) will protect you. It is best to contact your malpractice carrier regarding these matters before sticking your neck out. As a litigator I have found that clients who want free or deeply discounted services tend to be the most litigious and least forgiving.

  • CaptainParker

    Are these the type of clients you’d want in the first instance? This mindset is usually the one that is NEVER satisfied with what an attorney does, is telephoning you several times daily for “status,” will try to stiff you on your bill and will usually threaten a malpractice claim when you try to collect. Let them flounder – they deserve their fate.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      It’s always worth asking whether the clients you are losing are clients you want. But it’s also worth asking whether you can serve those clients profitably in a way that works for both you and the client.

  • Zach Kitts

    Lord Neaves would have been delighted:
    “Ye lawyers who live upon litigants’ fees,
    And who need a good many to live at your ease,
    Grave or gay, wise or witty, whate’er your degree,
    Plain stuff or Queen’s Counsel, take counsel of me:
    When a festive occasion your spirit unbends,
    You should never forget the profession’s best friends;
    So we’ll send round the wine, and a light bumper fill
    To the jolly testator who makes his own will.”

    I do not have this sort of a practice, but these sorts of DIY estate plans will, ultimately, generate *plenty* of legal work…