ABA approves guidelines for online legal forms

By Bennett Loudon
BridgeTower Media Newswires
ROCHESTER, NY -- The American Bar Association (ABA) House of Delegates has approved a resolution creating the best practice guidelines for online legal document providers.

The resolution urging online legal document providers to adhere to the guidelines was proposed to the ABA by the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) and the New York County Lawyers Association (NYCLA).
The proposal was developed by a group led by New York City attorney Ronald Minkoff and NYSBA’s immediate past president Michael Miller. The group includes 30 people representing bar groups, industry members, consumer groups, academics and others, according to NYSBA officials.

“Online legal documents provide cost savings and convenience for individuals and small businesses of limited means, and thus play a valuable role in promoting access to justice,” NYSBA President Hank Greenberg said in a news release.

Providing legal document forms online has become a global multi-billion-dollar industry helping millions of people gain access to the legal services they might not otherwise be able to afford. The documents assist people with wills, real estate transactions, litigation and other areas.

But there are no established guidelines for online legal providers (OLPs) to follow. In 2017, NYCLA issued a report that recommended that OLPs should be regulated by either the courts or the government. That report was later endorsed by NYSBA’s House of Delegates.

The guidelines include the following:

• Provide customers with clear, plain language instructions on how to complete the forms and the appropriate uses for each form;

• The forms provided to customers should be valid in the intended jurisdiction;

• Providers should keep forms up-to-date;

• OLPs should notify customers of the terms and conditions of their relationship, and customers should have to consent to the terms and conditions; and

• Providers should notify customers that the information they provide is not covered by attorney-client privilege or work product protection.

OLPs generate more than $4 billion in annual revenue. Industry leader LegalZoom estimates that it has served four million customers and its forms have been used to create one million corporations. Other OLPs include RocketLawyer, LawDepot, Legal Templates, FindLaw, FormSwift and Avvo.

The discussion that ultimately led to the new guidelines revealed competing approaches to OLPs. One group wanted strict regulations intended mainly to protect lawyers from the competition they represent. Others favored a set of recommended best practices, which was the view that won out.

“We believe strongly that the legal profession must turn toward OLPs and work with them and the technology they create to better serve the public at large, rather than take the rejectionist approach that OLPs are criminals violating unauthorized practice statutes,” according to the report to the ABA’s House of Delegates.

That approach acknowledges that numerous legal challenges to the services of OLPs have failed.

“In case after case, OLPs have settled favorably or won outright, and have even garnered support from the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission. To continue these ineffectual attacks benefits no one: not the legal profession, not the OLPs, and certainly not the public we claim to serve,” according to the report.