It is indisputable that the provision of free information and free services online is continuing its meteoric rise and the provision of legal services is no different.
Generally speaking, these free online legal services seem to fall roughly within 3 categories:
1. Giving of legal advice over the internet through Q&A style forum
Of perhaps most concern are those forums where answers are not even provided by a lawyer but by members themselves. The members are then ranked or given points by whether the recipient (who is in no real position to know if the answer is accurate or not) found the answer helpful. Obtaining legal advice from a person without proper legal training and experience (no matter how well intentioned that person is and how confident that person sounds in their answer) is a recipe for disaster.
Even for those forums where “lawyers” are giving the answers (and what checks are carried out to ensure they are current lawyers entitled to practise), there is such limited scope for that lawyer to obtain proper details about the issues, that the risks of the advice not being appropriate or insufficient are still quite high.
Of the sites that were reviewed for the preparation of this article, it became quite apparent that many answers are either so vague as to be unhelpful or just plain wrong.
In fact, the United Kingdom’s Guardian has previously published an article about “Law on the Web” (self-proclaimed “UK’s biggest source of Information”) which article is located at
Referring to one piece of advice given by that website, the Guardian article stated “ This is just wrong in ways that may well leave a landlord relying on it in something of a mess ” and “ Again, with a heavy sigh, this is just wrong. ”
Then “ So, even from this sample, it is clear that the 'legal advice' provided is sometimes vague and imprecise to the point of being useless. At worst it is downright inaccurate in ways that may cause substantial problems for anyone, landlord or tenant, who relied upon it.“
So if you are given legal advice on one of these forums and the advice is wrong, then you would be entitled to seek any damage you suffer from the lawyer who gave that advice, however practically speaking how do you do that? There are simply insufficient details to allow you to properly identify the lawyer (to allow you to take the action), so you are left in the hope that the website provider will provide these details (and we don’t like your chances….).
2. Provision of Legal Documents
Whilst on a brief review, some of the documents provided on these websites do at least provide a basic level of detail – any proficient lawyer knows the real devil is in the detail.
Looking at a partnership agreement for example, whilst some online partnership agreements appear to provide at least a basic level of competent detail, they simply do not go far enough in encapsulating the expectations and assumptions the partners may have in the partnership (such as the agreed roles and time commitments of the partners and any authority stipulations, whether each partner’s time is to be valued equally etc – all rich sources of potential future disputes for the partners).
Then there is the lack of advice and warning about the terms. For example, some online partnership agreements contain provisions that “time is of the essence” with absolutely no warning about what that means. Put briefly, it means that if one partner fails to comply with an obligation on that partner under the agreement by the time stated in the agreement the other partner(s) has/have a right to terminate the partnership agreement (and seek damages for any loss those non-defaulting partners suffer as a consequence of the termination) without allowing the defaulting partner the chance to remedy their default. That might be useful for the partners to know, before they sign that agreement!!
So coupling the lack of detail in the documents with the lack of advice about the terms and effect of the documents, is in our view a disaster waiting to happen.
3. Online Referral
Finally, there is the online lawyer referral service. Sometimes these services have managed to locate the “best” solicitor in your area and sometimes that lawyers has agreed to provide their services at a fixed price.
Sometimes the websites promise that the lawyers have in fact been “handpicked” and that the lawyers are the best in the legal industry. When did such flagrant advertising in the legal industry become acceptable? Yes, there might have been an interview process and yes, not all applicants might have been accepted, but how can it possibly be asserted that the lawyers they picked are the best in the legal industry?
We are often approached by such organisations asking us to join them and they will list our services (and of course there is a fee). We decline to participate, however if we had joined does that mean we are entitled to be held out to the public at large as the best in the industry?
Whilst some of the Law Firms on these websites are in fact very reputable firms with very competent lawyers, would they themselves represent to people that they are the best in the industry?? We would think not. Those claims are certainly not made on the websites of those participating firms that we checked. If you are in fact the best in the industry, wouldn’t you want people visiting your website to know that?
When it comes to the fixed price service, it then appears that some of these “best lawyers” can offer the service at a fixed price some 25% of the other “best lawyers”. Assuming for the sake of the argument that they are all the best lawyers in the industry and that each will give you a level of care expected from the best lawyers in the legal industry (so the products will all be comparable you would assume), why are some of the lawyers charging 4 times as much as others??
In truth, these websites are nothing more than a flagrant advertising service for those lawyers, making claims those lawyers themselves are not prepared to make on their own websites. Whilst the notion of fixed cost services is no doubt attractive to some people, most lawyers will be prepared to negotiate a fixed price for the types of services these websites offer (ie the production of a draft pro forma agreement).
Do not get caught up in the hype of these websites. Recognise these sites for what they are. If you cannot trust their fundamental promise that the lawyers they have located are the best in the legal industry, how can you have any faith in the site at all and those people involved.
We recommend that you always seek a referral for law firms by word of mouth, from someone that you know and trust. Otherwise, contact the Law Society for your state.