The Internet is an amazing tool where you can find information on almost anything. Last week, I, Matt Landis, learned how to fix a running toilet by googling it. I searched for “how to fix a running toilet” then watched a YouTube video, did a quick fix and I was good to go. I recognize this is a minor repair and many of you may not have even had to look it up, but let’s just say my home repair skill set is extremely limited.
There are a growing number of online services that will provide forms for any number of legal issues, including business entity formation, contracts, pleadings, estates planning documents and more. Often times these services appear to be a fraction of the cost of a hiring a lawyer. Other sites provide these documents for free. So if you can get forms to complete on your own for a fraction of the price or for free, why bother hiring a lawyer?
Lawyers provide legal advice catered to your specific circumstances and needs.
Using a form from the Internet assumes two critical facts – you know exactly what you need, and that specific form will accomplish your goal. A lawyer, on the other hand, is tasked with representing your interests and the application of the law as it relates to those interests.
If you go online and are presented with a number of options about forming a business entity, how do you determine which one is best for you and the short and long-term plans for your business? Is an LLC the best choice or should you be forming a corporation?
If you search for a clause to add to a contract, does it accomplish your goals, does it make sense in the overall context of the agreement, or does it add ambiguity and ultimately end up costing you money in a dispute?
You find a lease online – is that form more favorable to the landlord or the tenant? Does it apply the law of your jurisdiction and is it up to date? For example, I’ve seen leases online that purport to be current statements of Pennsylvania law that do not include specific requirements set forth in the Plain Language Consumer Contract Act, which could create a violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.
Good lawyers are in the relationship business.
Rather than the transactional approach taken by online service providers, my goal is to develop a long term relationship with my clients so that I can help them through a variety of legal issues that arise. For example, when I meet with a new business client, we discuss the details of the business and I take a look at the potential legal issues that I see that will need to be addressed over time. If I start with a client early in their business, I can help them develop a plan to address legal issues over time as the company’s budget permits. Working with a business over time also brings the intangible value of institutional knowledge – trust, knowledge of business goals, strategy and preferred method of dealing with conflicts all improve over time which increases the quality of the service you receive. Finally, since I take the time to get to know my client’s businesses, I can help them be proactive about trends and developments in the law that may impact their business as they arise.
Penny wise, pound foolish and are you getting what you pay for?
Providers of forms may be a fine option in some circumstances, but fixing missteps are often far more costly in the long run than it would be to hire a lawyer in the first place. Getting back to the home repair analogy, most legal issues are not like my minor toilet repair. A more appropriate comparison would be how a tiny crack can lead to a burst pipe. Lawyers are trained to watch out for small issues that can become costly in the long run.
Online services may also try to sell additional services, which you can never be sure as to whether you actually need it or if the provider is merely upselling. For example, do you actually need to pay several hundred dollars a year for a registered agent service, or can you utilize your own business address for that purpose?
Also, you can certainly take the time to research applicable laws and the process to accomplish your legal task, but would that time be better spent on revenue-generating activities in your business?
If you choose to use forms online, be mindful of the risk that you may not be accomplishing what you intend based on your specific needs. When considering whether to hire a lawyer, consider the value of peace of mind and that an experienced professional has a legal duty to act in your best interests.