People who want assistance with legal filings but don’t want to engage an attorney may lose key resources if plaintiffs prevail in a class-action lawsuit seeking to stop LegalZoom from doing business in Missouri.
Members of the local legal community questioned the value of such resources, warning that filing even basic legal documents without the advice of an attorney brings serious risks. Officials with LegalZoom – a self-described online legal document service – say they’re helping consumers represent themselves in common legal filings such as living wills and prenuptial agreements. Lawsuit advocates say, however, that the company’s methods go beyond self-help and constitute the unauthorized practice of law in Missouri.
On July 21, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri denied LegalZoom’s motion for summary judgment, which would have decided that the company’s online legal forms do not constitute the unauthorized practice of law.
The case, Janson, et. al v. LegalZoom.com Inc., goes to trial Aug. 22 in Jefferson City.At issue
For several legal matters, including incorporation documents, real estate deed transfers, living trusts and wills, prenuptial agreements and divorces, customers can order documents based on information they supply in an automated series of online prompts. A LegalZoom employee checks the information and contacts the customer to discuss inconsistencies, according to www.legalzoom.com
The site also touts “no surprise” pricing without expensive hourly fees. Formation of a limited liability company costs $99 to $359, depending on the features desired, and prenuptial agreements start at $695.
The plaintiffs’ amended petition says because no one at LegalZoom is licensed to practice law in Missouri, the company is violating a state statute by charging fees for preparing legal documents. The opinion denying summary judgment, issued Aug. 2 by U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey, also notes that staffers’ reviews go beyond self-help.
By creating a document tailored for an individual using the automated process, LegalZoom is practicing law, said Clayton-based attorney David T. Butsch of Butsch Simeri Fields LLC, representing the plaintiffs. “In terms of eliciting information from a client and then proceeding to prepare a customized document, that is nothing different than what a lawyer would do,” Butsch said.
The lawsuit claims that LegalZoom’s services don’t address all the specifics of Missouri law and that customers have no recourse if documents are faulty.
On the other hand, LegalZoom cites the same features in its process to defend its position.
“We don’t create documents. The software creates documents. The customer uses the software to do that,” LegalZoom General Counsel Chas Rampenthal said, noting that the company’s services don’t resemble the rich interaction between attorneys and clients.
He classified staffers’ reviews as clerical, “not legal or advisory in nature at all,” and noted that the laws of all 50 states were researched, so documents adhere to Missouri law.
The company’s online disclaimer states, “LegalZoom is not a law firm, does not act as your attorney and is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.” It also notes that LegalZoom does not guarantee information on the site is correct, complete or up to date, and it states that the company isn’t responsible for errors, urging customers to obtain attorneys’ services for complex cases.
If the lawsuit prevails, Rampenthal said, many self-help legal books and guides would be banned in Missouri because most of them include software that works like LegalZoom.
Rampenthal pointed out that the plaintiffs, who purchased LegalZoom services, do not dispute the quality of their documents. He noted that Laughrey’s opinion cites the Missouri Supreme Court’s assertion that the practice-of law statute, on which the suit is based, should not be used to give lawyers a monopoly or competitive edge.Home-state perspectives
Though the sources interviewed for this story said they weren’t familiar with the details of the LegalZoom suit, they raised concerns about the company’s services and self-representation in general.
Representing oneself entails high-stakes risks carrying consequences that may not pop up for many years, said Crista Hogan, executive director of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association.
“I could probably figure out how to fill my own teeth, too, but it’s not worth it,” she said. “I’d just leave that to the dentist.”
Attorneys licensed in Missouri must master state statutes and keep up with changes, she said, noting, “That expertise is what you’re paying for.” The legal system provides a disciplinary process for errant lawyers and recourse for clients, she added.
Douglas Kays, executive director of Legal Services of Southern Missouri, questioned the wisdom of relying solely on LegalZoom.
“Every time I see its commercial on television, quite frankly I cringe, because I think using a form without the advice of an attorney is a dangerous thing,” Kays said.Cost-control options
Those who need legal assistance but need to keep costs affordable aren’t without options. Among them is limited scope representation, in which people representing themselves meet with attorneys to discuss key case aspects, said Jefferson City attorney Lori Levine, co-chairwoman of the Missouri Supreme Court Access to Family Courts Committee.
Legal Services provides free legal help to those who meet eligibility and federal income guidelines, but funding is limited, Kays said.
For those who can’t get free help and must represent themselves in legal matters, Levine recommends www.selfrepresent.mo.gov
, a Missouri Supreme Court site designed by Missouri judges and lawyers. The site offers forms and guidelines for self-representation in family matters and warns of circumstances requiring a lawyer’s advice.
The Missouri Bar also offers some self-representation assistance. Living will forms, which cost $39 to $49 from LegalZoom, are free at www.mobar.org
, Hogan said.
“That’s one thing that people could easily do for themselves,” she said.[[In-content Ad]]