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For family lawyers, online legal advice can present stiff competition

Diane Minnich, the executive director of the Idaho State Bar, said online law services haven't provided much competition to Idaho lawyers. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

Diane Minnich, the executive director of the Idaho State Bar, said online law services haven’t provided much competition to Idaho lawyers. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

Attorney Audrey Numbers, who runs family law firm Numbers Law Office, often meets clients who started out trying to use online forms instead of hiring an attorney.

“What surprises me is the number of people who can afford an attorney that try to do it on their own,” she said. “There are people who take their whole life, their children, their retirement, their home, and put it all on the line without getting any advice. That shocks me.”

Use of online forms instead of face-to-face meetings with lawyers is a growing trend. Millions of legal documents are downloaded in the United State from law websites. Many websites promise legal proceedings at a fraction of the cost of the traditional face-to-face route.

“I hear a lot about (online competition) at our national conferences,” said Diane Minnich, executive director of the Idaho State Bar and Idaho Law Foundation. But Minnich said she doesn’t hear Idaho lawyers discussing the topic very much.

Legal advice on the Internet will change the way people use attorneys, said Connecticut attorney Frederic Ury, who wrote an article titled, “The Future of the Legal Profession.”

“There is a huge body of legal work in our court files which eventually will be online and available to everyone,” Ury said.

Susan Olson

Susan Olson

Hawley Troxell in Boise sees itself as largely immune to online competition – for now. Most of the online legal advice seems to target family law, said Susan Olson, the firm’s executive director.

“I think the online sites certainly serve a market, and we’ve obviously been paying attention to them for a while, and we know they’re out there,” Olson said. “But we’re a corporate, commercial law firm, and from our perspective, it seems the legal online sites are serving a more family- or individual-needs market.

“The online market is serving a need, it’s just not a need that is specifically for Hawley Troxell’s clientele.”

Numbers said her law clients often ask for help completing online legal documents.

“A lot of people who (use online forms) will actually pay an attorney for an hour or two of their time to help with the paperwork,” Numbers said. “I personally think, if you’re going to do it at all, that’s the least you should do.”

She added she’s seen some catastrophic outcomes from online forms.

“Every situation is so unique that (online sites) can’t give enough information to address what could be a very important issue in your particular situation,” she said. “By not getting some legal advice and doing it all on their own, people can create huge problems … some of which will never be able to be resolved or corrected.”

Minnich, of the Idaho Bar Association, said in most cases, legal practice just isn’t simple enough to be conducted online.

“We take thousands of calls in our office every year, and people so many times have one simple question,” she said. “But, unfortunately, there aren’t very many simple legal questions. … That’s why it’s kind of difficult for the public.

“We’re so used to going to the Internet and learning how to do things, but the rules and procedures in court are difficult, and you have to follow them. The court’s not going to allow you to not follow them because you’re not a lawyer.”

Free clinics are another option

Clinics provide another resource for the public to gather legal information. Clinics geared to low-income people don’t present competition, because their users generally don’t have the money to pay a lawyer, Minnich said. She added that Idaho offers court assistance offices in most of its courthouses. The courts offer forms online without charge.

“So why are people charging for forms (online) that sometimes aren’t as good?” Minnich said.

That’s a question some people in Missouri are asking in court.  Online law document provider LegalZoom is facing a class-action lawsuit that claims the company is unlawfully charging customers for the preparation of legal documents. LegalZoom is defending the claims.

Chas Rampenthal, LegalZoom’s general counsel, said his site can provide all the legal services many clients need.

“In addition to finding quality legal documents, people can come to LegalZoom and get the advice of a licensed attorney through our legal plans,” Rampenthal said in an email. “… Customers are able to build long-term relationships with attorneys they can trust, and gain insight into and triage important legal issues. Should customers want to continue working with an attorney beyond their legal plan, their attorney offers a discounted rate to do so.”

That service sounds like it could present serious challenges to working lawyers in Idaho. But at this point, there doesn’t seem to be much concern.

“It doesn’t impact my practice,” said Peter Sisson, and elder law attorney with Ahrens DeAngeli Law Group.  He said his practice is so specialized that no online provider could take his place.

“I’m not saying this as self-preservation or to drum up business for lawyers, but the problem with online forms is you don’t have someone sitting there asking the important questions and helping you understand the issues you haven’t even thought about,” Sisson said. “Everybody’s situation is so personal.”



About Chris Langrill