Docracy: A New Take On Free Legal Documents


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Perform a couple quick searches in the Google Keyword Tool and it quickly becomes clear that there is a huge demand for legal documents online.

Legal Documents, 5,400 monthly searches. Free legal forms, 8,100 monthly searches. Power of attorney form, 27,100 monthly searches. And these examples are just a drop in the bucket.

When people need a legal document like a contract, agreement, or an NDA and they don’t want (can’t afford, can’t wait, etc) to hire a lawyer, they go online. And this is what they find:


At least that’s what I found when I searched for free legal documents in Google.

And, of course, legal templates are nothing new. According to The Street, when RocketLawyer got started in 2007, it purchased Broderbund’s legal document archive, which was more than 20 years old.

And while most of these sites host template legal documents (wrapped in adsense, or for a fee), Docracy attempts to do something different:

What is Docracy?

Docracy is a social repository of legal documents. Our mission is to make useful legal documents freely available to the public. We also hope to make them easier to find, customize and sign. No more crappy templates behind a paywall that you download hoping everything will be alright.
Instead: reputable, transparent sources and social proof to help you find something as close as possible to the perfect document.

How does Docracy work?

Anyone can upload or write a new document, or branch, edit and improve existing documents either for the community or for personal use. Documents are private by default: only you can see and edit them. If you make them public, only you, as the owner, will be able to edit them (thus creating new versions), but other people will be able to branch them, privately or publicly.

The winner of a TechCrunch Hackathon, and the brainchild of mobile app developers Matt Hall and John Watkinson, Docracy is intended to be a Github for legal documents. In other words, it’s community-curated-crowd-sourcing for legal documents.

Docracy’s goal is to provide a more reliable non-lawyer document option for do-it-yourself’ers. It’s mission is to help people find free legal docs and sort them based upon popularity, which is measured by several factors including number of times downloaded and number of times signed. Yes, parties can sign documents right on the site.

In contrast to other sites, like LegalZoom, Docracy wants to unravel the template document for a fee model.

Docracy team member Veronica Picciafuoco, was kind enough to talk to me about some of the potential uses and applications for Docracy. In addition to providing free legal documents to consumers, one use that she suggested was that lawyers might use the site to store, develop, and customize documents for clients.

Launching only in January of this year, according to Picciafuoco, the site already boasts around 10,000 registered users.

However, as you are likely already thinking, Docracy is not without cynics. Comments by readers of Lifehacker’s Docracy coverage raise some of the most obvious concerns:

(1) One of the principles of contract law is that ambiguity in a contract is resolved against the drafter (the idea is that if you intended it to mean something else, you could have put that in, instead). Even though you didn’t actually write the contract, you’re the one that came up with it, so if there’s a dispute over the meaning of something, the court going to side with the other person.
(2) If you’re uploading something that you didn’t write, you’re probably violating someone’s copyright. (Yes, I know that legal forms are boring, but there is a certain amount of copyrightable creativity that goes into choosing which words to use in what order, how to format things, etc.)
(3) Each state has different laws, so the odds that something prepared for another state will also meet your state’s requirements are slim. (And when you’re dealing with the kind of important things that you’d normally need a lawyer to prepare, the consequences of screwing it up are pretty severe.)

Over at TechCrunch, Richard Granat, President/CEO at DirectLaw, Inc. writes:

It is possible to purchase today from online law firms delivering “unbundled and limited legal services” an NDA and other legal documents for a fixed price with legal advice bundled in. In that case you get a certain level of accountability and guarantee that the legal advice is correct for the user’s individual situation.

And, as you might expect, Docracy comes with the standard disclaimer:

And this one:

As the volume of relevant search traffic for free legal documents suggests, for many small business owners, as well as regular people, hiring a lawyer to draft documents for smaller do-it-yourself projects just doesn’t add up.

We can think of many situations in which the cost to have a lawyer draft a document exceeds the value of the deal for which the document is being created. In these situations, parties to an agreement are left with few options:

  • Handshake
  • Jot something down on a napkin.
  • Search for affordable document templates online.

Docracy attempts to provide a new alternative. Free legal documents that have been curated by the crowd. And for lawyers, perhaps a new avenue for potential clients, or a platform to manage, customize, and execute legal documents.

Docracy & Idiocracy

I suspect that many lawyers reading about Docracy will quickly dismiss it as yet another example of how the web is bringing us closer to idiocracy.

Obviously, like other template-based legal document sites, Docracy isn’t for everyone. And certainly, when the stakes are high, there’s simply no substitute for having your documents drafted by learned counsel. In fact, it would come as no surprise if Docracy’s own investors had lawyers draft their agreements.

But it’s also easy to sympathize with people who simply can’t afford a lawyer. Especially for very small deals and projects.

On the other hand, the consequences and costs of poorly drafted legal documents can far exceed what was foreseeable at the time of execution.

In fact, I suspect that many lawyer-readers could share lucrative horror stories of untangling legal messes that, were at least in part, the result of an online template legal document. Then again, there are likely even more stories of messes stemming from documents that were poorly drafted by a lawyer.

Nonetheless, there is little question that the demand for free, cheap, and affordable online legal document solutions will continue to grow. And so, one of the questions will be where do lawyers fit into this market?

Will lawyers continue to warn against the evils of template legal documents? Or will they participate in online legal communities like Docracy? If sites like Avvo are any indication, the answer is seems to be yes.


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  • Guest

    Someone should tell Scott Greenfield and Brain Tannebaum.
    This is the giving of legal advice. (eye roll).

    Orrick has an entire batch of start up documents for entrepreneurs, and advice how to use them, here:

    Law is transforming into a profession where those with strong capabilities in important practice areas will make more money than ever. Those whose practice consists of knowing how to fill out basic forms and being protected by Unauthorized Practice Statutes will die.

    BTW, thanks for the SEO tip. I should begin to offer documents online.

    • shg

      I love this stuff. It makes me happy to learn what all the really smart lawyers know.

  • “Can’t afford a lawyer” may be an oversimplification of the problem. A lack of transparency about the cost of legal services versus the value may be more accurate.

    True story: I am a non-lawyer working in a law office, so friends and family often do the “who do you know who handles X” thing. A family member made that sort of inquiry a few months ago on behalf of a friend of his who needed someone to come up with a contract form after his homegrown one got hammered in court.

    After having the “no, I can’t just give you a form, that’s unauthorized practice of law” conversation, I recommended his friend call our office and ask to speak to one of our lawyers who does a lot of construction law. I told him I was sure the two of them could sit down and come to an agreement about what was possible within his budget (it’s a small business but with enough revenue that he needs a regular go-to lawyer for occasional advice).

    I checked with the other lawyer’s secretary a few weeks later — the guy never called. And that’s not the first time I’ve seen that happen.

    I think a lot of practicing attorneys underestimate how intimidating the client intake process is and how uncomfortable potential clients are with the whole “I can’t tell you how much this is going to cost until we get into it” model. I think it’s this discomfort that drives people to LegalZoom/Docracy/whatever.

  • At some point, a competent group of lawyers will probably manage to put together an online document service that actually does its users a service. Until now, as far as I can tell, online document services are created by lawyers who don’t have the competence to make better money serving clients more directly.

    Docracy is an attempt to close that gap by giving competent lawyers an incentive to put good legal documents online. Unfortunately, even a good legal document is useless if it is the wrong legal document, or contains wrong terms. Docracy doesn’t seem to address this.

    Making online legal documents work takes more than just the document, because the document must be customized to the need. That takes a lot of time, knowledge, experience, and maintenance. And most lawyers with the necessary knowledge and experience would rather spend their time serving clients and making real money.

    • I agree with Sam, for the most part. However, I think there are some services traditionally performed by lawyers (and I am a lawyer in a transactional practice) that can be performed as well, or even better, by well-written software, e.g. simple wills, articles of organization, etc.

      But there is a big caveat to all of this, as has already been discussed but deserves further emphasis, the documents have to be well-written and correct in the first place. I have cleaned up many messes for clients who thought they were savvy enough to make legal documents on their own, but weren’t – in fact that has been a fairly large revenue center for my practice.

  • When the so-called futurists predict the end of the profession as we know it now, they typically mention on line legal documents as one reason to support their case. I respectfully dissent from that point of view. Although I have no statistics to support my argument, my gut tells me that the vast majority of folks using on line documents never went to attorneys anyway. In other words, twenty years ago if you were too cheap or couldn’t afford a lawyer, you either borrowed something from someone you knew and modified it or went without one. Today, there’s a third option. In either case, the business lost to traditional lawyers is the same; not much. Moreover, as pointed out in the post, use of on line documents frequently creates business for lawyers. So even if some business is lost to on line documents, it’s a wash with the business created by them.

  • I see more value in Docracy as a place for lawyers to share forms with other lawyers.

    To make an analogy: there are plenty of sick people who know that one of three treatments will make them feel better. If drugs were available on the internet, they’d just pick one. But they can’t. They have to see a doctor and get diagnosed, even if it’s a simple strep test.

    Similarly, all lawyers have their own forms and templates for many tasks. Having a wikipedia-style resource for them to draw on could improve the practice of law for everyone by crowd-sourcing tasks that are often forgotten, like eliminating legalese.