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:
- 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.