LegalZoom or LegalDoom?

With the title of our blog being twolawyersoneroof, I figured it was about time we start showing our lawyer sides (*legal disclaimer: Chase is not actually a lawyer just yet, although he finds out the bar results tomorrow and is sure to pass!  Stay tuned*). 

As such, Chase passed along an interesting article to me about LegalZoom, the website that helps users create legal documents without the help of a lawyer (although lawyers created the format for the documents).  Of course this raises the question, is this the unauthorized practice of law?  And for the non-lawyers out there who may not know what this means, basically every state has a law that prohibits non-lawyers from practicing law.  In this case, Missouri residents are saying that LegalZoom is violating it’s statute which prohibits the drawing or assiting in the drawing for money/consideration any paper that affects one’s legal rights.

So what does LegalZoom do?  Well interestingly, it was created in 2001 and co-founded by O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, Robert Shapiro [I can’t lie: this already makes me wonder].  It provides downloadable documents that users can fill out (this is not part of the lawsuit) and also allows users to answer a series of questions and then receive a legal document.  For example, if a user wanted a will, the website would ask questions such as: How many kids do you have?  What are their names?  How do you want to distribute your estate?

This may seem simple enough and you may be asking what the problem is.  LegalZoom’s VP doesn’t seem to get it either as he claims that no one’s being harmed by the documents since there have been few legal challenges in the decade the site has been up.  Well as a lawyer, it seems pretty obvious to me: legal documents are far more complex than simple questions, and just because no one has challenged the website or been harmed, doesn’t mean the harm isn’t coming down the road.  Who’s to say in 5 more years, the person who wrote a will with LegalZoom’s help won’t die and his family won’t contest the will’s validity?  Not to mention, most people don’t really know how they want their estate divided; they need a lawyer to tell them the many different ways an estate can be distributed and the positives and negatives of each.  Imagine using the website to draft documents concerning far more complex issues or estates!  This is really scary to a lawyer like myself!

Anyway, the challengers of LegalZoom’s actions have withstood the first challenge to their lawsuit.  A judge recently denied summary judgment for LegalZoom because, by LegalZoom’s own advertisements, it does more than simply make documents available.  Rather, users answer some questions and LegalZoom does the rest.  This sure looks like the drawing of documents to me!

It appears the case will be left to a jury to decide.  This is probably a good thing for LegalZoom because any lawyer would probably prefer to see the website shutdown since, at the very least, it takes away business from lawyers.  Nevertheless, only time, and some good old fashion litigation and lawyering, will tell if LegalZoom will become LegalDoom.

How do you feel about self-help-ish sites like LegalZoom?  Are they a recipe for disaster just like WebMD is for me everytime I diagnose my illnesses as deadly cancers? 

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