Do-it-yourself sites affect bottom line

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

Jackson attorney Rick Mills has noticed a change in his clients in the last few years. Some of them have a better understanding of the more technical nature of his probate law practice.

"I'm definitely seeing that," Mills said. "They are nodding their head and at least appearing knowledgeable about what in the past most clients had never heard of. And that is because they are doing their research online."

And occasionally, Mills will find some do-it-yourself online documents that his clients have completed.

Legal scholars are debating just how how much online services are becoming a threat to the legal profession.

In the American Bar Association's journal, William Henderson co-authored an article that said the golden era of prosperity is gone and the legal profession is undergoing a massive structural shift that will leave it "dramatically transformed in the coming years."

Henderson, director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, stated that there is an urgent need for cheaper legal services with more unmet legal needs.

The article stated that clients today are much more sophisticated, with vast knowledge just a "click of a mouse" away. Technology is replacing many tasks lawyers used to do, which Henderson called "a gunshot to the bottom line."

Services such as LegalZoom, The Practical Law Co. and Cybersettle are part of the "do-it-yourself kits" that have emerged in the last decade.

Since LegalZoom began in 2001, more than 2 million businesses and families have used its products, the company says.

Cybersettle states that it has settled more than 100,000 claims and $1.6 billion in settlements. With Cybersettle, customers type in the information for the opposing party, enter the offers for a settlement, and the other party is notified. The opposing party then enters its demands which are checked against the offers in hopes of an agreement.

Law firms such as Jacoby & Meyers LLL are also entering the market. (LegalForms.com.)

Survival for attorneys will depend upon using technology to give greater value at a declining cost, Henderson says.

Thanks to technological advances, Mills believes more clients are seeking legal aid with much more understanding of the issues. He compares it to people who go on the WebMD site to look up symptoms before contacting a doctor.

Even the State Bar of Michigan is offering self-help guidance.

On its website, the SBM offers a Michigan Online Legal Self-Help Center. Under the Wills, Estate Planning, and Probate in Michigan heading, there is a "Do-It Yourself Guide and Statutory Will" link.

"The state bar is aware of and concerned about the proliferation of 'do-it-yourself' legal kits that are being offered for sale to the public," said Bruce Courtade, president of the State Bar of Michigan.

SBM's primary object is to protect the public, Courtade said.

"In that light, we are concerned that many of these kits could victimize vulnerable people who do not understand that what they have paid for may actually undercut their rights, or those of their loved ones," he said. "Many of these kits are put together by people who are not licensed in Michigan, and many do not reflect or even comply with Michigan law. Thus, using these forms can be the equivalent of going to an unlicensed doctor or dentist in order to save a few dollars."

Courtade said the "do-it-yourself" link on the state bar's website was prepared by the state legislature and endorsed by the state bar.

The file warns that the booklet "is not intended to replace the advice of a legal professional when it comes to making long-term care and end-of-life decisions."

"As such, we firmly believe that the use of this simple guide fulfills the dual objective of assisting and protecting the public while also promoting the use of attorneys," Courtade said.

Chelsea Attorney Peter Flintoft said there have been "how-to-not-use-an-attorney" guides with forms out since the 1960s. He said he's had numerous clients who have used inappropriate forms when trying to do it themselves.

Flintoft said it's too early to say what type of impact LegalZoom type businesses will have on the legal profession.

''I think you just have to wait and see how good it is,'' he said. ''It just depends on how sophisticated this form-making gets to be.''

People who try to do it themselves are taking a gamble, said Jackson Attorney Craig Pappin.

He said he understands why people would go online to research basic information on a legal issue they may be having. But he said what starts out as a simple situation can get more complicated.

"You may not have those extra couple of questions that are going to flesh out what you didn't think about," he said. "Maybe what you didn't include in that agreement is going to have some real bad consequences. You are going to get burned potentially. Maybe next time, you will come back around (to an attorney)."

Some attorneys said it is still unclear how technology and the do-it-yourself kits will impact their business.

"It's like any job," Mills said. "If what you can do a machine can do, you are going to be replaced."

Published: Thu, Oct 18, 2012

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