The Internet is an amazing tool. It is literally a world of information at your fingertips. And when it comes to legal documents, there are thousands upon thousands of them available online, addressing every possible issue you can imagine. No one knows better than us attorneys how quick and easy, not to mention cost-efficient, it seems to you to pull up that sample contract you found online, change the names, and be done. But we also know the truth, which is that when it comes to Internet legal documents, you get what you pay for. Here’s why:
You have no idea who wrote it. There is simply no way to verify who the real author of the document or article is and whether they have any legal education or experience at all.
Times change. Laws change and develop over time, and there is no way to determine when the document was written or uploaded. An agreement that is based upon outdated law won’t do you any good.
You are unique. Every person, business and situation is unique. That online document was drafted for someone or something else and probably needs to be changed to fit your situation.
50 states. Each state in this country has its own set of laws and regulations. A document drafted in California is going to be based on different principles than one drafted in Michigan, and there is no way to verify which state’s laws the document you found online is based upon.
Legalese. Hate it as you might, legal terms have meaning, and if you don’t have a complete understanding of the terms being used in your document, you can’t be certain that you are addressing the potential legal issues contained in it correctly.
Copyright. Work of another person carries with it their copyright, and use of copyrighted documents can lead you to some hefty fines. The person who drafted that Internet document may not have given their permission for its use.
Formatting. Most courts have formatting requirements for documents being filed, and those requirements change from place to place. Internet documents are generally designed to look official but may not follow the format recognized by the state or local court you’d like to use them in.
Online documents lack clear instructions. Failing to properly fill in the blanks can render a document ineffective. For example, use of your personal information, rather than corporate or trust information, can lead to unintended legal problems.
Goods vs. services. Online legal shops are goods-based businesses that sell only pieces of paper. Attorneys, on the other hand, are service providers. We are referred to as “counselors” for a reason. We listen to your concerns, consider the problems at hand, and take all of the information you provide to us into consideration. We then work to protect your interests and carry out your wishes. The documents you receive from us are the result of the advice and counseling we provide, rather than “one-size-fits-all” merchandise for sale to the general public.
All this being said, there are ways in which Internet legal documents can be beneficial and help you keep legal costs down. Reviewing sample documents can help to educate you about the types of issues that your attorney may ask you about and help you to be prepared with information and insight that is useful to your attorney in assessing your legal needs. Reducing the amount of time your attorney needs to spend digging for information will reduce your overall legal costs. If you find a legal document on the Internet that looks useful to you, by all means, read it and ask an experienced attorney about it. But Internet legal documents should never be used in place of experienced legal counsel.