Another DIY Legal Website Sued Over Unauthorized Practice of Law
Another website is testing the boundaries of what constitutes "legal advice" -- in much the same way your friends criticize you and then walk it back with, "Just sayin'."
Pro Se Planning Inc. operates websites where non-lawyers can fill in some forms and get customized legal paperwork. Except that allegedly, they don't always work. Latoisha Van Buren is suing Pro Se Planning in Louisiana, Courthouse News Service reports, because "the company is not licensed to practice law in Louisiana and any contracts for legal services with nonlawyers in the state 'are absolutely null.'" (An employee with Pro Se Planning declined to comment to CNS about the suit, which seeks class certification and an injunction.)
What could this website possibly be offering that's so offensive to our noble profession? I put on my hazmat suit and ventured to their website to plan my perfect divorce.
That All Depends on Your Definition of 'Legal Advice'
Pro Se Planning operates four different websites, including Divorcewriter.com, the site that's specifically at issue in Van Buren's lawsuit. At the outset, it's hard to say that Divorcewriter.com isn't offering legal advice (although a teensy-weensy disclaimer at the bottom of the page suggests otherwise). When you select the state where you're going to file your divorce, the website gives you information about residency requirements, grounds for divorce, and procedures specific to that state. There's even a helpful FAQ that answers legal-advice-sounding questions like: "We were married in a foreign country. Can we divorce in the U.S.?"
There are so many questions and answers, in fact, that a layperson could be excused for believing that the website was providing all of the answers to any conceivable question someone might have.
Is There an Attorney in the House?!
Pro Se Planning or LegalZoom (which has already gotten into hot water with state regulators) shouldn't be blamed for using the do-it-yourself business model. A lot of people have very simple legal needs -- like needing a will or a rental agreement drafted -- but don't go to a professional because the prices can be quite high for simple legal questions. "Form" websites will do for these situations.
A problem arises when, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, there are "unknown unknowns." In the fields of probate and family law, things can get complicated, especially so in community property states, and non-lawyers may not know when, for example, they're in a Moore/Marsden scenario, and what's more, won't even think to ask.
Suddenly, a "simple" divorce settlement isn't really an option anymore, but non-lawyers filling in forms don't know that. This is when an attorney's expertise comes in handy, and why the real problem with a website like Pro Se Planning -- which does have some comprehensive answers -- is that it can lead someone to believe it will answer all their questions, even though it won't.
This only means that there's a niche to be filled for simple, low-cost legal work that hasn't yet been filled by human lawyers.
- The Dangers of DIY Estate Planning (U.S. News & World Report)
- Mall Lawyers Offer Advice, Discounts to Clients in Need (FindLaw's Strategist)
- How Many Clients Will You Lose to Do-It-Yourself Legal Sites? (FindLaw's Strategist)
- Spend more time developing practice skills and less time advertising. (FindLaw Lawyer Marketing)