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DIY Legal Advice: You Get What You Pay For

Often free internet advice on Do It Yourself ("DIY") professional matters is worth exactly what you pay for it:  nothing.  The internet has changed the way we interact with each other, the way we shop, and the way we manage our lives. Search tools like Google and Bing now steer users to millions of web pages, some of which contain “professional” advice on everything from medicine to law.  

One of these sites that provides an online database of legal forms was recently investigated by the Attorney General in the State of Washington.  This investigation was settled and the parties signed an Assurance of Discontinuance (pdf) on September 1, 2010. The Assurance highlights some of the pitfalls people should look out for when preparing their own legal documents online.

Article II of the Assurance lists the acts which the Attorney General determined were “unfair or deceptive acts or practices and unfair methods of competition in violation of 19.86.020 RCW”. These acts include the following:

  • Failing to offer estate planning legal forms in Washington that conform to Washington law.
  • Failing to clearly disclose that communications between the provider and Washington consumers are not protected by the attorney-client or work product privilege.
  • Comparing service costs with those of an attorney without disclosing to Washington consumers the fact that the provider was not a law firm.
  • Misrepresenting the costs, complexity and time required to probate an estate in Washington.
  • Misrepresenting the benefits or disadvantages in comparing estate distribution documents in Washington.
  • Failing to comply with 19.295 RCW (the statute dealing with estate distribution documents).
  • Engaging in the unauthorized practice of law by providing legal advice about self-help documents.

While the Assurance notes that it is not to be considered an admission by the provider and that it “shall not be considered a finding of wrongdoing,” the document does effectively spell out some of the questions individuals should be thinking about when preparing their own legal documents:

  1. Do you have all of the correct forms?  Many online law providers are not allowed to direct readers to particular or necessary forms.
  2. Do the documents comply with all of the laws for the relevant state(s)?  If you’ve got property or assets in more than one state, this is important. 
  3. Is there sensitive information that the individual would rather keep confidential?
  4. How complex will the implementation of the documents be.  For example, what will probate cost? 
  5. What will the process ultimately cost?  If future litigation blows up because the forms are defective or insufficient, your estate and/or your beneficiaries will pay the price. 

You’ve heard these warnings before: "If it’s too good to be true……" or "an attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client."   The same cautionary advice holds true for those who opt to prepare their own legal forms using an online service.  While some may be able to use these services to prepare inexpensive legal documents, the costs associated with enacting these documents and the opportunity for error can be significant.


Finally, if an attorney commits an error in preparing legal documents, the attorney is covered by malpractice insurance (or should be – some states demand mandatory insurance while others do not), but no such protection exists for those that prepare their own documents.