January 10, 2013 § 3 Comments

Last weekend, as the mind-numbing parade of college bowl games played itself to an end, I noticed television ad after ad for legal do-it-yourself material. All of these spots proclaimed the ease and utility of their service, and painted a glowing picture of the marvelous legal landscape that even the most basic person could paint for himself.

One ad — I am not making this up — encouraged viewers to use their forms for “family trusts, incorporation and estate planning.” Those matters would be in addition to the more routine matters one might expect, like divorces, wills and custody. Oh, but what about anti-trust, shareholders’ derivative suits, patents and personal injury litigation?

I was sitting there pondering what these customers might do for tax advice as to the trusts, incorporation and estate planning, not to mention that as to all of the matters listed above — and many, many others — one size emphatically does not fit all, and there are all kinds of legal ramifications in the way documents are worded.

A few weeks ago I was presented with a provision in a computer-assisted property settlement agreement that read: “Husband shall pay one-half of the college expense of the minor children (transportation), and clothing and automobiles.” Ambiguous? You betcha. Not only is the husband’s obligation scarily unclear, particularly in light of Zweber, but what is wife’s obligation (my guess is none; that’s the most unambiguous part of the provision)? I denied the divorce and suggested they get the assistance of a lawyer. 

But as I pondered these imponderables, it dawned on me that this legal self-help business may actually be a boon for the legal profession. Consider all of the litigation it will take to untangle all of those family trusts, corporations and estate plans. The tax lawyers, in particular, will have a field day.

Family law matters are another fertile field. Anyone who has practiced any length of time will tell you that representing parties later who represented themselves in a divorce is a pleasant undertaking because it is the client himself who got himself in this mess, and he will be the goat if you fail, while you be the hero if you succeed. That’s a win-win for the lawyer.

Okay, before anyone gets all offended, I confess that this post is most certainly tongue-in-cheek. None of us who understand the importance of the legal profession and the demands of professionalism takes any delight in the misfortune of those who venture without a competent guide into the legal jungle. It’s just hard to understand why any layperson would take the risk to save a few bucks.


  • […] There are the online purveyors of self-help legal kits. I’ve posted here about them. […]

  • Should these forms be regulated? Is this essentially practicing shrink-wrap law? It seems most of us realize the potential, and actual, harm done by these “do-it-yourself” kits. Does the general public get a sense that the legal profession in some way supports their use? After all, they are available in most office supply stores, at least in the Metro area.

    I guess it is caveat emptor. But most people’s emptor doesn’t seem to be getting caveated until it’s too late.

  • Formula for a lawsuit I’ve heard more than once: “We were just sitting around the kitchen table talking about Mom’s will, so I download this will form, and I watched her sign it. She said this is what she wanted.”

    In each instance the suit settled by ignoring the document and applying intestate succession. It does cost more 1. Because of angry family members, 2. Everyone has to figure out what happened & 3. Have everyone get an attorney and/or a judge tell the heirs what they needed to do.

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