Don’t Confuse Your Attorney With A Paper Dispenser

There are a number of sources of free legal documents and free or cheap legal document generators online. This is overall good news and should not in any way be a real threat to attorneys. But people often confuse a document for a solution to a legal problem. In order for the document to be useful, it has to say what you want it to say. You have to know what it is you want to accomplish with this document. Knowing when a document works requires a skill that a document generator cannot provide.

Software programmers would not insert any old code to try to accomplish a specific task. It takes a fair amount of skill to determine if source code can be reused from one program in another without causing problems. Blindly copying legal documents is not any different. If the document doesn’t do exactly what you want it to do, you might be in a worse situation. But like programmers, attorneys do reuse “code” and free and readily available documents help to do that. The “code” is on legal documents is English (sometimes barely recognizable). But the danger for the do-it-yourselfer is not knowing or not caring what the legal code on that document means.

For example, Legalzoom offers incorporation and trademark registration services. But Legalzoom doesn’t offer any advice on what kind of application to file, whether its necessary to file, how to get value from that piece of paper or how to make sure your newly formed company actually complies with state law. They basically guide you through the form and check spelling, which at any price is pretty expensive. A better value would be to buy a book by Nolo Press (which are for the most part really good) and gain enough understanding to do it yourself; or save up your money and hire an attorney. For both corporations and trademarks, obtaining the piece of paper is only a small fraction of the work. If you ignore the rest (compliance, usage etc.), the paper is worthless. Paper is cheap. Know-how costs extra.

Nevertheless, there are things that make sense to do yourself and not hire an attorney. For my own clients, if there are things that are routine, I may offer to advise them on a strategy and propose a form or policy that they can reuse. I also might suggest having them draft a document and then simply have me review it for potential problems. I would rather see them save some money on legal fees now and still be in business years later to hire me for matters that might demand more attention. The value in hiring an attorney is not to have access to a paper dispenser, but to have access to advice.

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