Those Internet Forms Can Be the End (of You and your future)

Fiscal discipline and use of legal forms downloaded from the Internet from a (supposedly) reputable online retailer seems to be a growing trend among Massachusetts individuals and businesses. Rather than enter the painstaking process of finding an experienced business or real estate attorney that will charge a fair rate, return phone calls and e-mails, and deliver a result; many people turn to the Internet for help.  There are dozens of on-line retailers that sell "legal forms" for the price of $79.00, and sometimes less.  The Web-sites are often advertised throughout the Web and television, and typically have "famous" lawyers, celebrities, and major publications endorse the product. These Web-sites allow a client to purchase and download a "legal form" for issues concerning business law, real estate, and estate planning that follows the "one size fits all" methodology of approaching legal issues.  

Here, the old cliche rings true: "You get what you pay for." When you download "legal forms" off the Internet, what exactly are you getting and what are you paying for?

Cost Savings - How much are you really saving, and what is the potential cost to your financial future and peace of mind? Many of these "legal form" sites provide package deals and an array of "value added" benefits at different price levels.  Compared to the cost of hiring legal counsel, the cost savings of using the Internet to practice law can be substantial for very simple legal matters, and, on the other hand, the costs can be the identical for more complex matters. Cutting a few corners when  planning for the succession of your family business or assets is not a prudent decision.  If you are making decision involving thousands (or millions) of dollars, why would you trust a legal form provided to you on the Web by an unknown author? Legal services from a qualified and experienced business, real estate, and estate planning attorney cannot be substituted by fillable forms when making life and game changing decisions. 

Accountability - Who authored the form that you just downloaded? What are their qualifications, and what type of experiences did that person have that caused them to draft that document a certain way?  Was the form created based on your individual circumstances, or are you buying a template? Who do you speak to if you have legal questions when you need to make decisions in filling out the form? Who do you speak to when an issue arises after the form becomes important, or ends up being reviewed by a Judge or Jury?  The accountability issues concerning online legal forms are endless.  You can be assured that a qualified Boston area business, real estate, or estate planning attorney will be able to answer all of these questions, and fulfill any legal service and consulting need.  When you download and use a "legal form," you will not have a local attorney with verified qualifications that will remain accountable to you and the state bar.  

Advice & Counsel - A form is just a form.  You may receive a brief synopsis of Massachusetts State law that was copied from public information, or some instructions on how to fill out the form. However, you cannot expect an advice on best practices, shared experiences, or any planning or recommendations from an attorney.  You are essentially on your own. Many of these legal form Web-site try appear to be helpful and make promises that a qualified "legal expert" may be available to assist, for an additional (hidden and not so up front) fee. (And in this instance, who is this "legal expert" or "top attorney"? Are they qualified to advise and do they have experience with Massachusetts law? Where is this person located?). 

Confidentiality - Not all "legal form" web-sites allow instant download of forms.  For more complicated business, real estate and estate planning documents, you will be required to submit information via an online form, and you wait up to thirty (30) days for the entire process to be finalized.  In other words, you are submitting confidential information via the Internet to a company (that you met on the Internet) that is tasked with securely storing your information, and performing legal work (by someone that you have never met).  When you hire a local Boston area attorney, your confidential information is protected.  You can assured that it will not be submitted via the Web, or stored by an unknown company.  Additionally, what are the legal form company's duties of confidentiality to you?  They may state that they retain or treat all information as confidential, however, those companies have no legal duty (or accountability) to you as opposed to a local attorney.  

Personalized Needs and Service - The digital age has removed the old fashioned, personalized service from professional services that our parents grew up with.  Legal form web-sites are no different from any other impersonal, digital experience. You rarely deal with a live human being, and when you do it is with a complete stranger outside of Massachusetts.  Depending on whether you select the right attorney, doing business with an attorney will enable you to receive a more intimate level of service with a local professional who will be responsive to your questions, concerns, and overall legal needs. Web-sites cannot substitute real human interactions, and the many benefits that personalized service will provide you in terms of making you feel at ease with any legal process. 

I have heard numerous tales of horror from existing and prospective clients, colleagues, and friends about Internet "legal forms."  Some of these accounts have resulted in  costly, time consuming, and nerve wracking court battles where no party ever truly wins.  When Massachusetts business or individual seeking legal services turn to the Internet to solve a legal need in areas of business law, real estate, or estate planning, they are taking a substantial amount of risk, and making a very expensive  bet that a standardized form will provide a long term, ironclad legal solution.   Take this article as a tale of caution because those Internet Forms Can Be the End (of you and your future).