Do-it-yourself projects, like remodeling your bathroom or building a deck, can save money and provide a sense of accomplishment by doing something on your own that you would ordinarily hire another person to do. With any do-it-yourself project there are risks involved, such as increased cost if you have to hire a professional in the end or if your inexperience causes other damage.
The internet has allowed individuals to perform some legal functions on their own. Many government websites, for example, offer forms with detailed instructions that can be very helpful for people seeking to help themselves with certain issues. There are also websites that offer forms and additional services for a fee. These websites are required to stop short of offering legal advice because they are not law firms, which is made very clear on LegalZoom’s website: "LegalZoom is not a law firm, and the employees of LegalZoom are not acting as your attorney….if you need legal advice for your specific problem, or if your specific problem is too complex to be addressed by our tools, you should consult a licensed attorney in your area." Because these sites are not law firms, they are also not subject to the rules that govern lawyers. This is why they are able to do things lawyers can’t do, such as use celebrity endorsements.
The risk associated with do-it-yourself legal services is similar to that of other do-it-yourself projects in that if you end up needing a lawyer your costs will be higher than if you had just hired a lawyer from the start. The risks, however, may be significantly higher if you waived certain legal rights or failed to protect yourself from other liability. LegalZoom is just one of several sites, offering both business and personal services, others are geared toward forms for business, contracts and leases for landlords.
If you are forming a business you can file a certificate of organization or articles of incorporation and find the forms on the Corporation Bureau website. But staying in compliance so that election matters is another story (link to other article), as is the advice on what type of entity is right for you, and what other documents or agreements you need to carry out your goals. An operating agreement is essential for an LLC, as are bylaws, minutes and resolutions for corporations which are not available on the state website. Online form providers will generally offer these documents in a package, but what is missing are shareholder agreements, buy-sell agreements, stock transfer agreements, employment agreements with covenants not to compete for key employees and non-disclosure agreements. An attorney will likely discuss your goals with you and recommend these documents to fit your needs, as well as tailor an operating agreement for your specific business.
One of the clearest examples of when a self-help form service would be to your disadvantage is divorce. Divorce includes issues such as spousal support, child support and the equitable distribution of marital property. Form postnuptial agreements and no-fault divorce forms generally waive spousal support and rights to marital property. Custody, which includes both legal and physical, might be included in a form postnuptial agreement as well. If you have already purchased a form, it is worth it to consult with an attorney and make sure you are aware of the many rights that will be affected, because the effects of these decisions are be long-lasting.
There are several websites that offer forms for landlords. There are several laws that govern residential leases, such as the Landlord and Tenant Act, the Plain Language Consumer Contract Act and the Mobile Home Park Rights Act. If these forms are not in compliance with Pennsylvania law landlords may be subject to liability. For example, the Plain Language Consumer Contract Act ("PLA) (link to other article) requires specific language if the contract contains a waiver of a tenant’s rights, which almost any form lease will. I viewed a free sample of a residential lease from a website which did not comply with PLA although I chose Pennsylvania as the applicable jurisdiction.
It is important to understand the risks associated with performing your own legal services and make informed decisions about what approach is right for you. Do not form a false sense of security and think that you are receiving legal advice. If you call a 1-800 number or email one of these organizations you will not speak to an attorney or an individual able to provide any legal insight into what the forms say. No attorney-client relationship is formed and you are proceeding at your own risk.
In short, if you seek to perform your own legal services, in most cases you will not need an internet form provider. If you are submitting documents to a state or federal agency, check those websites for forms and speak to the personnel in the offices. Although they will not be able to provide you legal advice, they will be able to tell you how to fill out the forms. If you feel that what you are seeking to do is beyond that, invest in an attorney. If you’ve already paid a form provider, it is worth consulting with an attorney to review your documents.