Do-It-Yourself Legal Service Websites

In a recent blog post, I discussed the pros and cons of choosing to represent yourself in court actions, rather than hiring an attorney to handle your matter. In such legal areas as civil litigation, family law, bankruptcy, small claims, traffic court, etc., there are times when you can act effectively on your own behalf and save the expenses involved in getting a lawyer to take your case.

For better or worse, there’s an abundance of resources on the Internet to assist you in minor, do-it-yourself (DIY) legal matters. But before making use of such sites, it’s best to be aware of potential pitfalls. As with most things in life, “You get what you pay for” should be your guiding mantra.

Legal in all 50 states?

Remember, anyone can post anything online, often with very few repercussions. For example, looking up definitions for legal terms or attempting to find answers to legal questions on Wikipedia is very risky. Relying on information you find there and on other general information websites could land you in a great deal of trouble.

Probably the riskiest DIY practice is using legal forms obtained online. While there are some legitimate websites (those created and maintained by experienced attorneys), various sites are out there that offer “easy-to-use” forms and assure the public that “no attorney assistance is required.” Some also claim their forms are “legal in all 50 states!”—without also noting that individual states often have other legal requirements which are not included in the DIY form.  Further, some legal matters may involve legal forms which are very similar to other legal forms, but for a sentence, a phrase or even just a word.  While the slightest difference in terminology or other formality may not seem important, it may end up being so significant that it (1) costs you (or another intended beneficiary) substantial amounts of money or (2) otherwise does not achieve your desired outcome, leaving you with a document worth about as much as the paper it is printed on.

A case of DIY gone bad

Here’s an example of where use of an online form can create legal difficulties down the road, a situation that has presented itself to me on more than a few occasions. John, who has been married for several years, presented me with a pre-nuptial agreement he’d completed several years ago with his then-fiancé. The pre-nup was downloaded from what he thought was a perfectly respectable legal document website, touting “practically iron-clad pre-nuptial agreements” which can be completed and signed anti fungal “without the need of expensive attorneys.”

Upon reviewing the document, I found numerous issues, including a lack of inventory or other specific identification of each party’s separate property. The legal form simply stated that “all assets brought into the marriage shall remain separate property”—ambiguous wording that wouldn’t adequately protect an individual from a claim of community property interest concerning assets he brought to the marriage without additional documentation (e.g. tracing documents showing that the property was not only brought into the marriage but that, among other things, no community contributions had been made to that property). Further, John and his spouse believed they had included and properly agreed to a “spousal support waiver,” when, in fact, California law requires that the person whose receipt of spousal support is limited or waived had independent counsel before entering into the agreement.

I regretfully informed John that his pre-nup was practically worthless and that now, years later, he has very limited options with regard to getting what he wants.

What you should do

If you decide to go the DIY route and use a legal form you find online, I strongly advise that you consult with an attorney before proceeding with such a form. Many lawyers, myself included, offer to review documents and provide advice on same for a reduced fee, less than if that attorney prepared the document(s) themselves. This way, you get valuable peace of mind with respect to your legal affairs, rather than buyer’s remorse down the road.

Also, some websites offer an option for “reduced-price attorney advice” services. While this can be very beneficial, make sure that the person you talk to is an actual lawyer, licensed to practice in the state where the legal issue arises. It’s easy to verify such a license by checking with that state’s Bar Association, such as the attorney directory located on the State Bar of California website.

A final note:  the more complex your legal case is, the more you need to recognize your limitations. Rather than choosing the supposedly easier and cheaper DIY option—which could end up being neither cheap or easy in the long run—look into retaining the services of an experienced attorney.

Are you in need of legal counseling, document review, or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf, APC offer a free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.

When should you legally represent yourself?

For many people facing a legal issue, the first thought that generally comes to mind is how much will this cost in attorney’s fees? The good news is that there are numerous types of cases in California where being represented by an attorney is not a necessity.

As a general rule, you may not need to be represented by an attorney when:

  • Your case is clear-cut and there’s no opposing side (as in a request to change your name).
  • You and all other parties involved agree about everything (such as an uncontested guardianship of a child).
  • You’re confident that you are fully aware of your legal options and can make informed choices about your case on your own.
  • You have the time and willingness to learn the law and the relevant rules and procedures appliable to your case.

A person’s Constitutional right to be represented by an attorney only comes up in a very few types of cases (e.g. criminal). In all other legal situations—civil litigation, family law, bankruptcy, small claims, traffic court, etc.—you do not have an absolute right to legal representation. In these circumstances, a person wishing to have an attorney advise and/or represent them must seek out legal assistance on their own.

If you’re thinking of representing yourself, keep these considerations in mind:

How Complex is Your Case. You may not need an attorney for an uncontested divorce. However, if difficult issues are involved – such as being allowed to move out of state with children of your marriage, spousal support, extensive property divisions—it’s best to at least get some legal advice, if not active legal representation.

Your Ability to Handle a Legal Matter. Be honest about your personal strengths and weaknesses. Some cases require extensive appearances before a judge, which can be an intimidating experience. Someone who’s shy or fearful of speaking in public might be best served by having an attorney speak for them.

You Have Trouble Expressing Yourself Succinctly. An attorney can help you avoid rambling and focus instead of the key points of your case.

You’re Held to the Same Standards as a Practicing Attorney. Whether or not you’ve skin care passed the bar, when you’re in court, you’re held to the same standards as a full-fledged attorney. If you don’t feel competent in mastering those standards, you may need an attorney.

You Lack Time to Handle Legal Matters on Your Own. People who work full-time or have a family to care for aren’t necessarily able to devote the time required to handle a legal matter on their own. Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon to spend hours to a full day at the courthouse simply to get a legal form successfully filed.

Fortunately, there are many great resources available to assist people who wish to represent themselves. In California, each court offers online and in-person self-help centers for certain legal matters such as family law, small claims and sometimes even probate.

Some courts offer facilitator offices to assist in the “grunt work” needed to resolve your legal issue. It’s important to note what facilitators can’t do. In divorces, for example, a facilitator can’t offer advice on whether you’re seeking all that you’re entitled to nor on the methods you need to utilize to discover things to which you may be entitled – which means there’s a real possibility you can leave critical issues unresolved.

While facilitators and self-help centers are very useful, it’s always a good idea to get expert legal advice. Attorneys, after all, are paid to zealously represent their clients and get the best possible resolution in court. Some attorneys, including myself, offer reasonable rates and even discounted services with respect to some types of legal matters.

In conclusion, before striking out on your own, speak to an attorney who is knowledgeable in your case’s area of law so you can make an informed decision on whether or not your attempt to save money will cost you more in the end.

Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf, APC offer a free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.