What You Pay For

September 19, 2013 § 3 Comments

Many pro se parties in chancery rely on internet services to provide them with forms and “legal advice” with which they are to prosecute their claims. Most do it in the belief that these services will save them money.

As with attorneys, the quality can vary dramatically from service to service, and, as with all things in life, you get what you pay for.

A few days ago, as I signed R41(d) orders, I ran across a set of instructions that a pro se party had filed along with pleadings in an irreconcilable differences case. It purports to be a 5-paragraph summary of how to obtain a “No-Fault Divorce” in Mississippi. The two paragraphs on procedure were so, well, quaint, that I thought you might find them entertaining:

“In order to begin the divorce procedures in Mississippi one spouse must file a “Bill of Complaint for Divorce” with either their county, or their spouse’s county office of the Clerk of the County Chancery Court. This document explains who the couple is, what assets they have, what the filing spouse wants to receive from the divorce and any other general facts about the marriage. Once the complaint is filed it is the job of the filing spouse, now called the Complainant, to serve his or her spouse (now called the defendant) the complaint and other necessary forms.

“The defendant upon receiving the beginning divorce forms must then file the necessary forms to state that he/she did receive service and he/she does or does not contest. If the defendant does not contest then the judgment will be smooth and the divorce granted quickly. However, if the couple contests, then 60 days must pass before their case can be heard. Once in court, the judge decides the most equitable (fair, not equal) way to divide the property, debts, child custody and any other contested terms in thee divorce.”

This little haystack of legal advice has any number of prickly incomplete, misleading, and inaccurate-advice needles. I am sure any of you will ferret them out easily.

No wonder so many pro se parties find themselves absolutely lost in chancery court. They would almost be better off relying on their own ignorance.

The thing is, not all of these internet providers are so shoddy as the example above. Many sail right through court with all the i’s properly dotted and the t’s accurately crossed. They present real competition for Mississippi lawyers, who must pay office rent, staff salaries, utilities, bar dues, malpractice insurance, and on and on.

There is a tool that would help level the playing field. It’s the limited-scope representation agreement, which is now permissible under our ethical rules. The problem is that most attorneys with whom I discuss the subject are wary of it because they have not been able to come up with an agreement that they feel would adequately shield them from liability.

I wish the bar would get busy and furnish Mississippi lawyers with prototype limited-scope representation agreements. Mississippi has been late to the party on this issue, so, surely, there are proven instruments available from other jurisdictions. Unless and until Mississippi lawyers have the tools to compete with these internet services, the public will suffer from the poor ones, and lawyers will continue to lose business to the more adequate ones.

The real losers in this situation are the lower-middle-income and poor. They rightly feel that most attorneys are beyond their financial capability, so they turn to these internet law-robots. They suffer from poor advice, and lawyers lose some potentially paying business. We need to turn that around, because it is true that … you get what you pay for.

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