Using an online service
Online legal services are services offered via the Internet by online companies and some law firms to allow people to complete legal forms, consult with lawyers, register new companies, and carry out other legal business. This article lists the main services online legal companies provide, explains why someone would use an online service, and describes some of the limitations to using these services.
What is an online legal service?
Online legal services are services offered via the Internet by online companies and some law firms to allow people to complete legal forms, consult with lawyers, register new companies, and carry out other legal business.
As well as paid online services, a person can also get free online legal advice for non-criminal matters by posting on the American Bar Association’s Free Legal Answers website. A pro bono lawyer (lawyer working for free) will review the question and post an answer.
What services do online legal companies offer?
The types of services that an online legal company offers can vary. Depending on the company’s size and business model, they might offer:
- Only legal forms and documents, such as wills and trusts, which a person can download and fill out. These companies often offer guidance in filling the forms out.
- Downloadable software that automatically helps the user fill in forms.
- Legal forms and documents plus access to online sessions with lawyers at lower cost than in-person sessions.
- Email advice and answers to legal questions from attorneys.
- Access to on-call lawyers for email or phone consultations, or referrals to local attorneys.
- Monthly or yearly subscription plans, with or without a contract. These can provide access to lawyers for general legal advice or in specialized areas such as estate planning. Some companies offer “bundles,” just like with a TV provider, with legal documents and advice in specific areas. For example, LegalZoom offers estate-planning bundles that include an initial phone call to get the planning started, document preparation, and a year of attorney advice.
Why would someone use an online legal service?
People often want legal guidance when they do estate and end-of-life planning. In addition, some of the key documents in these plans require a lawyer to help create them and make them legally valid. However, lawyers can be expensive. The idea of lawyers’ fees can stop a person from getting important planning done and documents drawn up.
Using an online legal service can be an effective compromise between trying to plan on one’s own and hiring an expensive in-person attorney. These services can also be a useful lower-cost alternative for those looking for advice on the basics as they start the planning process. With the basics covered, these people can then consult an in-person lawyer about more complicated parts of their plan.
What are the limitations of using an online legal service?
While online services can be convenient and relatively cost-effective, they have some downsides and limitations. Some of these include the inability to handle complex legal situations, risk of invalid documents, lack of legal protection, and little or no personal interaction:
Inability to handle complex legal situations
Even the biggest online legal services cannot properly handle complex estates or complicated legal situations. For example, if a person has children from multiple marriages, a large estate, property in multiple states, and so on, they will need to work with an in-person estate-planning or elder-law attorney.
Risk of invalid documents
Any one-size-fits-all document may be invalid in a person’s state. Since state laws vary widely in all areas of estate and end-of-life planning, it is important for a person to check that forms and documents are specific to and valid in their own state.
Lack of legal protection
The lawyers who work for reputable online legal services are qualified to practice law just like any other lawyer. However, the people they advise are not legally their clients in the same way as with an in-person lawyer. This means that their interactions are not covered by client-attorney privilege 1.
Little or no personal interaction
Unlike with an in-person attorney, online legal services do not allow a person to develop an ongoing relationship with a lawyer who may have a deeper understanding of their situation. For those seeking legal help in sensitive areas, such as deciding who receives which assets in their will and who they will name to be their medical proxy, this deeper relationship can be important for both emotional comfort and the best legal advice.
Creating legal documents
Decisions related to aging and the end of life
Durable power of attorney
Engaging an attorney
Estate and inheritance taxes
Financial plans versus estate plans
Medical power of attorney
Overview of estate plans
Overview of legal documents
Overview of trusts
Will and testament