Online legal help has grown tremendously in the past 10 years. But, the truth is many of those websites are providing legal advice – without a law license. In lawyer talk, we call that unauthorized practice of law. Unauthorized practice of law was developed to protect consumers from charlatans, person who claim legal knowledge, but lack it. I am not sure what to think about the online legal service providers.
But, Raj Abhyanker knows what to think. He has sued several of those legal service providers, LegalZoom, FileMyLLC, and others. Mr. Abhyanker practices patent and copyright law. As he points out, those online providers can provide services without incurring expenses for continuing legal education, for malpractice insurance, and the many other expenses actual lawyers incur. The online legal providers have an advantage. Mr. Abhyanker says bar associations are unwilling to push the issue. But, the bar associations all know these providers are providing legal advice, meaning they could be prosecuted. See ABA Bar Journal report.
I think bar associations are holding back also because at least so far, there have been no significant scandals arising from these providers. Until or unless they cause harm to consumers, it is hard to criticize them. They are indeed providing legal advice, but much more cheaply than seeing a lawyer. In most of the world, civil law countries have an institution known as “notaries.” In a civil law country, a notary provides the more routine and mundane legal services more cheaply. In France or Mexico, you can see a notary to draw up a contract for you, and it will cost much less than seeing a solicitor. In the U.S., we do not have an equivalent of the notary. We have notaries, but they cannot draw up legal, binding contracts. There ought to be a cheaper way to obtain the more mundane, routine, legal services.
Part of the reason bar associations hang back from going after these online providers is that they do fill a niche.