August 1, 2011 § 3 Comments

It’s no secret that I am at least dubious about the efficacy and advisibility of lay persons representing themselves in court. My distaste for the practice rests primarily on the fact that most often it results in self-inflicted harm. Secondarily, I am concerned that lay litigants are unencumbered by any ethical or professional obligation of candor to the court and fair dealing with the other party.

Many lay-lawyers download forms from online vendors. The purveyors of these forms claim that they enable lay people to handle their own routine legal matters for less money than it would cost them to pay a lawyer.

My problem with that approach is two-fold:

First, how does a layperson decide that a legal matter is routine without some advice? How does a layperson know what the hidden pitfalls are if she has no one but a form to ask? Sure, she can check box A on the computer-downloaded form, but would box B be far more advantageous?

Second, is not the providing of legal forms in itself providing legal representation? The Mississippi Supreme Court answered the question in the case of Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Jenkins, 725 So.2d 162, 167 (Miss. 1998), in which the court stated:

” This Court defined the practice of law to include ‘… the drafting or selection of documents, the giving of advice in regard to them, and the using of an informed or trained discretion in the drafting of documents to meet the needs of the person being served. So any exercise of intelligent choice in advising another of his legal rights and duties brings the activity within the practice of the legal profession. Oregon State Bar v. Security Escrows, Inc., 233 Or. 80, 377 P.2d 334 (1962).’ Darby v. Mississippi State Bd. of Bar Admissions, 185 So.2d 684, 687 (Miss.1966).”

There is a class action lawsuit pending in Missouri raising the issue of unauthorized and inadequate practice of law by Legal Zoom, an online seller of legal advice via forms. The thrust of that lawsuit is that the company’s activities are inherently harmful to consumers because they violate the state’s public policy against unauthorized practice of law, which protects consumers. The trial judge has already overruled the company’s motion for summary judgment, and the company is mounting an ad campaign in the state to scare people into believing that their right of self-representation is under threat, and that lawyers are out to get their money.

We have seen our share of Legal Zoom-type documents and other internet lawyers in this district, but that’s not by any means all.  We have shadowy individuals in the area who sell “secretarial services” in the form of complaints for irreconcilable differences divorces, PSA’s and judgments. Those clerk-typists are beyond a reasonable doubt unqualified to give legal advice. So what possibly qualifies them to prescribe the forms appropriate for a person’s legal problems, and to determine the appropriate content?

Caveat emptor, you might say. I answer: bull. Neither the legal profession nor the courts should countenance unqualified persons preying on unsuspecting laypeople. I wonder what the state bar and the district attorneys are doing to rein this in? After all, there is a state law making it a crime to practice law without a license.

As I have said before, I am all for self-representation. But I hate to see self-destruction. And I hate even more to see someone on the path to self destruction believing that they are protected by a piece of paper they bought off the internet or from a “secretarial service” with no legal advice to back it up.

This is not all about protecting lawyers or making it easier on the judges. This is all about making sure that the legal process produces as fair a result as possible, and that all who are involved in it deal with each other and the court with integrity and are fully informed of their rights and the ramifications of their actions.

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  • mike says:

    This is nothing more than attempt to protect the lawyers market. Self-representation is the right of citizens to petition the court, whether with or without the advice of an attorney. Services are now being smart and using software which generates the customers documents, without any human intervention. This will never be held to constitute the UPL as it is the customer that provides and selects the documents appropriate for their circumstances. There is also a serious jurisdictional flaw in the argument that online documents services are engaged in the UPL. Services that are not located within the state of Mississippi are not subject to the UPL laws of Mississippi.

    • Larry says:

      I disagree with nearly every point you made. It’s cynical and facile to say that ULP laws are to protect lawyers. The fact is, lawyers and judges don’t enjoy cleaning up the messes of the self-inflicted legal wounds, nor do we enjoy seeing people self-destruct when competent legal help would save them or minimize damage.

      You are wrong about the law of UPL, at least in this state. Mississippi has long held that preparation of legal documents for others is the practice of law. Read the cases; they explain the rationale quite clearly.

      The online-generated pleadings I see, and I do see many, are generic and usually poor, the better ones about equal to what an inexperienced atty would produce. I have seen some that are barely literate.

      I do agree, though, that citizens have evry right to represent themselves in court. Most every time, it produces disastrous results, but that’s their choice and their right.

  • […] yesterday morning, I posted here about the internet and the unauthorized practice of law, taking the position that internet legal-forms dealers are practicing law without a license and […]

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