by Michael J. Evans 9-7-2012
Free legal forms are no match for a pro, says Consumer Reports
“Robo-Lawyers” Legal Zoom, Nolo and Rocket Lawyer flunk bar exam; create legal forms that could lead to “unintended results”
I’m happy that Consumer Reports recently tested the legal documents created by LegalZoom, Nolo, and Rocket Lawyer, and found that the websites were no substitute for a real lawyer. I often refer to these do-it-yourself legal websites as “robo-lawyers.
There’s a reason the “robo-lawyers” flunked the bar exam. To borrow a line from former President Bill Clinton, there’s “a one-word answer: arithmetic.””
Arithmetic, as in Moore’s law, which says that computing power doubles every eighteen months. So even investors in the Robo-Lawyer websites want to pretend that computers can use artificial intelligence to create documents just as well as a lawyer, that’s science fiction. In fact, it’s nonsense, as the Consumer Reports article proves.
We may be able to use arithmetic to project that at some point in the future computers will have enough processing power to draft binding legal documents. It will probably happen, but I don’t know if it will take ten, twenty, or forty years.
Moore’s Law is well-known to geeks (a group in which I include myself), but if you’re unfamiliar with Moore’s Law you can find it discussed in a fascinating article about the future of computing, which was published by Wired.com on August 22, 2012. Wired Magazine interviewed Dr. Daniel Hammerstrom, the head of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).
Here’s what Dr. Hammerstrom says about computer processing power:
“One of the things that’s happened in the last 10 to 15 years is that power-scaling has stopped,” he says. Moore’s law — the maxim that processing power will double every 18 months or so — continues, but battery lives just haven’t kept up. “The efficiency of computation is not increasing very rapidly,” he says.
Therein lies the problem with the Robo-Lawyers’ claims to create “valid and binding legal documents in all fifty states,” to quote one of their spokesmen. Here’s the verdict of Consumer Reports on the legal forms created by the Robo-Lawyers:
Online wills and other online legal forms can have “unintended consequences”
From Consumer Reports magazine’s September, 2012 issue:
The verdict. Using any of the three services is generally better than drafting the documents yourself without legal training or not having them at all. But unless your needs are simple—say, you want to leave your entire estate to your spouse—none of the will-writing products is likely to entirely meet your needs. And in some cases, the other documents aren’t specific enough or contain language that could lead to “an unintended result,” in Silber’s words.
The truth is that computers are useful, fascinating, wonderful tools that real lawyers use every day. They have enabled us to change the way law is practiced in America. Because of computers and the Internet, I’ve been able to run a national mass tort law practice representing thousands of clients nationwide from my office in Birmingham, Alabama.
I have “pushed the envelope as hard as almost anyone over the last twelve years when it comes to using the Internet to expand legal services and make top-notch lawyers available to people anywhere in America. The tagline of this blog has been the same for years: How lawyers can use the Internet to attract clients, be more effective, make more money, and have more fun. But even though I’m a huge fan of technology and social media marketing, I can vouch for the fact that technical limitations don’t allow legal services to be provided over computers the way banking services are provided through an ATM
I’m glad to see a credible, unbiased group publish a real evaluation of the services of the Robo-Lawyers. I think that those of us who are lawyers and use social media should share the verdict with as many non-lawyers as possible. I’ve started posting on Facebook and sending out tweets with lines such as these:
- #RealPeopleNeedRealLawyers Pass it on. The estate you save may be your own.
- Consumer Reports evaluates Robo-Lawyers” Legal Zoom, Nolo & Rocket Lawyer. All flunked the bar exam.
- If you want to share a link to the Consumer Reports article, here’s a short link you can use: http://bit.ly/UyIWxi
Online legal forms vs. online law practice, the ethics
Of course, the Robo-Lawyers claim they aren’t practicing law, so they don’t have to comply with the legal ethics rules that govern lawyers. I want to mention here that the ABA has just amended the ethics rules to more clearly target much of the activity of lawyers on the Internet, and specifically dealing with solicitation when lawyers are on social media sites. I also want to put in a plug for my 3-part series analyzing the new ABA rules changes on my attorney marketing online blog. The first two parts have already been published.
A brief history lesson in the ethics and legality of attorney marketing online beginning in 2000
If any of you are interested in the ethics of national Internet marketing in the year 2000, I’ll tell you I spent weeks in the local law library and eventually decided that there simply were no ethics rules for lawyer involved in Internet marketing. I believed that the Internet would revolutionize law practice, and allow people anywhere in the U.S., even rural areas, to be represented by top-notch attorneys even if they didn’t live within 500 miles of a mass tort lawyer. So I decided to launch the venture and simply comply with the ethics rules that already existed.
The only concern I had was the possibility that an overly zealous district attorney might charge me with the unlawful practice of law in some distant state. For this reason, I decided the safest course of actions would be to form alliances with law firms in other states so that we would have a locally licensed lawyer on the employment contract of any mass tort client we agreed to represent. Thus was born the “legal alliance” concept of partnering with one or two of the nation’s top mass tort firms (to handle the litigation), and create an “alliance” with small law firms in other states. Our alliances grew until we had local lawyers in 42 states who were members of the ”Rezulin Legal Alliance,” “Baycol Legal Alliance,” “Sulzer Legal Alliance,” “ATV Legal Alliance,” “Mesothelioma Legal Alliance,” etc.) I’m continuing to organize “legal alliances” today.