Self-Serve Legal Websites

Well, this seems simple...

Well, this seems simple…

I wanted to weigh in on the self-serve legal sites that we’re seeing advertised more and more. Well, I’m not going to name names here, but let’s just say that the most popular version of these rhymes with Should we use these sites? Why or why not? What’s the worst that can happen?

Form a corporation for only $250!

I don’t know if that’s the advertised price; I just pulled it out of thin air. The point is that a bunch of these sites advertise “packages” for legal documents like corporation paperwork, wills, trusts, trademark registration, patents, etc. And, every time I hear it, I think the number seems *really* low – because I know how much work goes into these types of things.

For example, to put together a corporation including the documents, filing, and training the person on what to do or not do, takes me close to 8 hours. I’m not the cheapest attorney in the country, but I’m also not the most expensive – I have to charge somewhere more than $1000 to make ends meet. How can they do it at $250 (or whatever the number is)? Do they have a sweatshop staffed with minimally trained children somewhere in Asia?

Well, no. Most of the websites that do this kind of work say that they’re using proven “forms” and “templates” that you can fill in yourself to meet the legal requirements. Really? Let me tell you how this works in practice…

One Size Fits All

My analogy of “one size fits all” isn’t that great actually. A “one size fits all” garment is still a garment – it may just be a bit loose, or a bit snug. So, here’s how these things work – generally:

  1. You log in
  2. You select what you want (a will, an LLC, a trademark, whatever)
  3. You answer some questions
  4. They give you a form filled out with your answers
  5. Sometimes they will file the documents for you

So, one possible outcome is that the thing that comes out of the website *is* legally adequate. Now, do you think they have attorneys in every state modifying the forms and details for each state’s requirements? I doubt it. So that means that the forms have to be written to be generic enough to be good *anywhere.* If it’s adequate for forming an LLC to make surfboards in Iowa, does that mean that it’s a good fit for someone making beer in NC? No? Too bad, you can’t edit the form. And, if you could, they won’t tell you what you need to know to do it right.

The other possibility is that they do tweak each one for you based on your answers to questions. I envision this to be like building a car: (1) Do you like spacious interiors? “Yes, I do!” (website adds the body from a 1961 Buick), (2) Do you like good gas mileage? “Yes, I do!” (website adds the engine from a 1994 Geo Metro), (3) Do you like warm weather? “Yes, I do!” (website decides you don’t need air conditioning in the car). Pretty soon, you have a monstrosity of pieces and parts assembled from different places – all of which were probably fine, but which – together – completely fail to do anything useful.

Lastly, thanks to the self-serve aspect, the website – nor their attorneys – actually help you figure out *WHAT* you need. “Want to file for a trademark registration? Here, fill this out, and pay us.” – never mind that you actually can’t register the mark you want to – so you just wasted your money.

So, uh, should I use it?

Well, it is less expensive. But, I can almost guarantee you that you’ll get something that is definitely not suited to YOU. If you want to go ahead and take the low cost route, what’s the worst that can happen? Oh, yeah. Uh, you could be sued by your business partners, you could spend a lot of money and not get anything, or you could have something – that you think is good – but in reality is worth *less* than the paper it’s printed on.