The recent announcements that both LegalZoom and Google’s RocketLawyer will be launched in the UK has sparked discussions about the adequacy of these self-help services and how they are to impact on the profession.
LegalZoom is a US online legal document provider and was founded in 2001 by a group of lawyers, including Robert Shapiro who formed part of OJ Simpson’s legal team. The website provides businesses and individuals with a variety of services to meet their legal needs including registering trademarks, writing up wills and even filing for divorce. While there are already online legal advisors in the UK such as the Co-Operative Legal Services, LegalZoom will be the first to provide global services to their customers. Online legal document providers such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have become increasingly popular in the US; the former describe their consumer base as those wanting to do things for themselves and who don’t have the money to instruct a lawyer to do it for them. It has even been suggested that lawyers instructed to carry out similar work have used these sites to source relevant documents at a price much lower than they charge their clients.
It is expected that LegalZoom will be launched in 2012 to coincide with the soon to be introduced Legal Services Act. This quite controversial Act allows for the non-lawyers to buy into law firms in an attempt to open up the legal profession to business. Most enthusiasts have shown their support for self-help websites for bringing the law to the public in a way that is more accessible.
Despite many great reviews, there have been concerns mostly from the legal profession itself about the adequacy of these sites. Richard Tromans of Jomati Consultants LLP described these services as ‘potentially risky’.
He emphasises that as it is non-lawyers who are providing these services clients experience a gap in accountability that is not an issue if a qualified lawyer is instructed since he/she is regulated by the SRA. The US version of LegalZoom currently includes a disclaimer that makes clear that it is not providing legal advice, however, how this will translate in the UK version and whether any limits will be introduced to regulate this service has yet to be known. The underlying worry is that there is no redress if the information given is inaccurate or out-of-date.
Arguably, the quality offered by a lawyer is unparalleled by those services provided. Not only is there redress if things go wrong, lawyers ensure the correct forms are completed and filed with the correct body, although this is to a certain extent offered by self-help sites there is room for error which can have grave consequences for any business or individual if a certain document is not filed properly. These sites are not designed to deal with complex cases and so lawyers who can provide tailored advice and guidance should be instructed in these cases. Customers, however, may feel more confident to self-represent in these cases and, even in court, this can cause serious delays within the court system related to a lack of legal knowledge and training.
Another issue to consider includes privacy. The site requires users’ personal details to be entered; as yet we don’t know how these will be protected if at all or whether customer information like other businesses will be sold on for marketing purposes, something that is often guaranteed and protected against under that lawyer/client privilege.
If the UK response is anything like that of the US, then LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer will do well, undoubtedly with the legal aid cuts occurring there is a place in the market for those services offered. Whether this means the demand for legal professionals will decline, well, only time will tell. But so long as there’s money in the world and people willing to claim entitlement to it, there will always be a need for lawyers to fight their position. It’s safe to say practitioners won’t be clearing their desks anytime soon.