How Trustworthy Are Legal Services OnlineElizabeth Wasserman
The Internet is turning into the world's biggest law firm.
In the same way that an abundance of medical information moved online and helped families get educated about their physical ailments, there has been an explosion in the number of web sites now offering legal information to help you best represent yourself in legal matters. These days, you can find a lawyer, write a will, incorporate a small business or find out about a legal topic so that you can determine whether you need to shell out the money to hire an attorney.
"Lawyers are experts in advocacy, legal research and complicated issues involved in representing you," says Mary Randolph, vice president for editorial at Nolo, a Berkeley, Calif.-based legal publisher that maintains a web site with information, ads from lawyers and legal services you can buy directly. "But a lot of legal matters are really just a matter of paperwork. If you have good information, you can do the paperwork yourself."
Here are some of the legal services available online for a fee -- or for free -- in addition to how to make sure you're following advice from a legitimate and safe web site.
Tip No. 1: Find a lawyer
Gone are the days when you need to turn to the Yellow Pages to find an attorney in your area to help you solve your legal woes. The American Bar Association maintains a web site with links to free lawyer referral services around the country maintained by state and regional bar associations. The attorneys must meet the ABA's list of requirements -- being licensed, insured and subject to client satisfaction surveys among them -- to be listed in bar-related referral directories.
Other sites also maintain lawyer referral services. On FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters online business since 1996, you can search for a lawyer by your location and your legal issue for free. The site also maintains free guides to hiring an attorney and looking up any discipline actions that have been taken against certain attorneys. Two other web sites, Nolo and LegalZoom -- the latter based in Los Angeles -- also offer free lawyer lookups based on location and legal topic. Both sites maintain that lawyers featured via their services are in good standing and meet qualification requirements. Nolo also offers a free online guide to lawyers' fees, retainer agreements and the attorney-client relationship.
Tip No. 2: Find legal services
You can also use web sites to help with do-it-yourself legal representation. Several web sites offer software, online forms and step-by-step guidance to help you handle routine legal matters by paying a flat fee for the service versus an hourly fee to an attorney. "It’s a great solution for entrepreneurs and families who need basic legal protection but don’t want to spend lots of time or thousands of dollars to get it," says John Suh, co-founder of LegalZoom. "There is a wide range of services available, everything from filing a trademark, creating a living trust, to forming an LLC and even uncontested divorce." LegalZoom offers several business and personal services, including living will packages and business incorporation packages.
FindLaw offers links to services that you can do by yourself with the help of software or online forms, including uncontested divorce forms and home sale contracts on a state-by-state basis. Forms can be downloaded or sent to you by regular mail. Nolo also offers links to books and kits, such as a provisional patent application or will-maker software.
Tip No. 3: Find free information and forms
One of the best ways to use the web is to do your own legal research. Nolo's web site features over 1,500 articles on every day legal topics, from landlord-tenant disputes to bankruptcy proceedings, from criminal law to forming a corporation. "You may have a legal problem that you can find the answer to online," Randolph says. "Otherwise, you have to go to a professional, which can be intimidating and expensive for some people." FindLaw also provides free tutorials on topics from suing as a result of accidents or injuries to traffic violations. Several sites, such as Legal Docs, Free Legal Documents or Legal Forms Kit, offer free downloadable sample contracts and forms from rental leasing to employment agreements. But if you use online legal forms, just note that you’re ultimately responsible for their validity.
Tip No. 4: Find legitimate sites
Before going online for legal advice or services, you need to make sure that the web site and information you use is legitimate -- and safe. You can get in legal hot water for filing false documents with a government agency or incorrectly drawing up your own contracts for such things as renting out an apartment or selling your car. "Like any unfamiliar web site, you should pay close attention to the people behind the company," says Suh of LegalZoom, which was founded by lawyers from some of the nation's most prestigious law firms.
Reputation and how long a company has been doing business in the legal arena are also good factors to consider. Nolo, for example, has been publishing legal information for 35 years. FindLaw is backed by a large information services corporation. Warning flags should go up if you find outdated information on a legal web site. Lastly, the web site should alert you if your legal needs are too complicated to be done by yourself. "No web site replaces advice from a legal professional, but they can give you background so that you can discuss your issues intelligently with a professional," says Randolph.
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