Thursday, September 10, 2009

Free forms, Thoughts for the Do-It-Yourself Crowd, and Unbundling My Services

I got a heads up from about its listing of form sites directories a few weeks back.  I know that some of you come to the site looking for free advice about your case or looking for forms and this might interest you. Before you go racing for the site, be sure to read the other article I include in this post.

50 Free Sources for Downloadable Legal Templates; Documents
The sites listed below are categorized by “various documents,” which covers personal and business legalities of all shapes, sizes and character. The business category offers sites that focus mainly on businesses, especially smaller businesses. The last category, “Specific Focus Sites,” offers links to sites that focus only on one specific issue, with free legal documents and templates that pertain to that issue.
All sites are listed alphabetically under each category to show readers we do not favor one legal template and document site over another.

Specific Focus Sites

  1. Divorce Forms: Click on your resident state link to obtain marriage settlement agreement kits with free divorce forms, fee waiver, checklist and guides.
  2. Fathers Unite: Legal forms that any father may need in custody situations.
  3. Free Divorce Forms: Click on your state on the Web site map to download divorce forms and documents and templates for issues about children, custody, child support, restraining orders, petitions and more for that state.
  4. Find a copyright notice, Web site disclaimer, privacy statement and cookies policy template for your Web site.
  5. Legal Pleading Template: This site provides several legal pleading templates for appeals, for appellee to respond to appellant, for filing bankruptcy, divorce and civil lawsuits.
I do know the quality of these forms.  You may want to compare them with the forms I have posted to

Am I right in thinking that people think all they have to do is fill in a form and they become instant lawyers? Houston Divorce & Family Law Attorney Blog's Do-it-yourself on-line Divorce Kits - Buyer Beware! shows the danger of this kind of thinking.
Just this morning in the 311th District Court of Harris County, I personally witnessed a pro se litigant present a final decree of divorce. The source of the litigant’s forms were RapidLaw, an internet site offering divorce, adoption, and bankruptcy services across the U.S.

The family law judges and court staff in Harris County bend over backwards to assist pro se litigants. However, they may not give legal advice to pro se parties. The forms were not prepared to properly dispense with the parties’ 401-K and retirement benefits. Apparently, the documents were insufficient enough to spur the judge urge the litigant to reconsider presentation of the decree as-is. The Judge asked the pro se party where she received the forms. Her response was Rapid Law. The Judge next asked the party if she paid for the forms, and she answered yes. Finally, the Judge directed the bailiff to photocopy the instructions from RapidLaw – presumably to present the information to the State Bar of Texas.

I have no way to know whether the pro se party: incorrectly filled out the forms, failed to follow instructions, or if the service offered by the provider was simply deficient. I do know the end result was not what the party intended, and she must now seek counsel to properly prepare the final decree to finalize her divorce.

I had a similar experience that I wrote about in Observations on Pro Se Cases, Part 2: You Got to Know The Territory.

Bear with me for a few more minutes.  Legal documents bear no relation to the kind of documents where you might fill out elsewhere - say like a credit application or a car title.

Think of legal documents as being more like bombs that you are throwing out into the wider world.  They have a purpose and a meaning in a broader context.  You need to know their purpose or they will blow up in your face.  The excerpt from Houston shows the blowing up in the face situation.

Lawyers know the context - that is the legal system.  They know the purpose of the legal system.  Whether doing without any advice from an attorney is really worth the cost, does depend on the facts of the case.  After all you can learn the context (I suggest my Indiana Family Law:  Where the Law Comes From - Parts 1, 2, and 3 for a start on what you need to know) and from there you can figure out what purpose each form has in your case.  But how long do you have to accomplish all this?

I go at this length to explain why I hesitate to recommend any form site - even the use of my own forms.  It is not even so much the question of how well the form is designed for Indiana, but a fear that they create a false sense of security in the user.  I can promise very few things in my business but I can promise this: the Texans from the Houston article will spend more on fixing their Decree than what they saved by using the online forms.

I should probably point out I am now offering unbundled services.  Unbundled means that instead of hiring a lawyer for all legal services, they are hired only for parts of a case.  While still not common in Indiana, the idea of unbundling services has been around for awhile.  My Why I am offering unbundled legal services gives the reasons for my offering this type of service and how I see it working for a client's benefit.  I have set out here the kind of services I see - at this point - as being best suited to unbundling. 


Anonymous said...

I agree with your comment about quick and dirty law forms - it will cost you more in the long run than hiring proper representation.

Similarly, even though I am a financial professional I would never prepare my own tax returns.

Sam Hasler said...

Good points. Thank you for that comparison.