Man in the mirrorFour years ago, Michele Ellson created an online community newspaper, The Island, in Alameda, Calif., under a limited partnership. But she didn't hire an attorney to form the LLC or file the paperwork.

Instead, Ellson turned to LegalZoom, where she spent $552 to gain access to the forms and have attorneys review the paperwork and file it with the state. "I was looking for something easy to use and one where I knew what to pay up front," Ellson says.

Ellson is one of an increasing number of consumers trying their hands at being do-it-yourself lawyers. Last year, Google Ventures poured $18.5 million into Rocket Lawyer, which boasted 70,000 users a day and doubled its revenue for four years running, according to a Forbes report. And LegalZoom, according to its website, has served more than a million customers.

With the economy still in the doldrums, here's a list of some of the options available to consumers who wish to being their own legal eagles, and potentially save some money in the process.

A Will to Save Money

Based on a typical last will and testament form for a married couple with minor children, here are some of the fees and features of various online legal services:

U.S. Legal Forms:

  • $24.95 to download a form, or $69 if attorneys provide advice when filling out form.
  • Provides a general description of a will and its purpose.
  • Allows users to drill down based on state of residence and marital situation.


LegalZoom:

  • $69 to $79 for a basic form and a 30-day free trial of its Legal Advantage Plus service, which includes access to an attorney.
  • While the site offers little educational information about wills, it does provide a $50,000 guarantee in case a court finds the document invalid because it was created by the user online.


Rocket Lawyer:

  • Free with a one-week trial membership, $19.95 per month afterward, $17.95 per month with access to an unlimited number of documents, or $9.99 per month with a one-year prepaid subscription to access unlimited documents and reviews from local attorneys.
  • Provides some educational information regarding wills, and when to use their service.
  • No information on pricing until document is filled out.


LawDepot.com:

  • $19 per will for two-week access, $38 per will for one-year access, or $33 per month for access to all forms.
  • Provides extensive videos to walk users through the process of filling out forms.
  • Users do not learn how much each form costs until the document is filled out.

And the Reviews Say...

Reviews for online legal forms run the gamut. TopTenReviews is pretty generous with its ratings. The site listed U.S. Legal, LawDepot and FindLegalForms.com as "excellent," while Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom received "very good" ratings.

Consumer Reports was less forgiving last year when it rated several do-it-yourself software products for wills, including online offerings LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.

According to Consumer Reports, problems with the services include outdated information regarding such things as federal estate tax limits; insufficient customization, which typically offers scant detail on estate tax laws; few freedoms, like the ability to describe the distribution of assets as desired; or too much leeway, which allows for some customization but doesn't include the clauses necessary to account for such changes.

The report noted that unless consumers have a very simple game plan -- e.g., the spouse inherits everything with no stipulations -- the do-it-yourself services are likely to fall short of an individual's needs.

When You Should Go to a Pro

Consumer Reports suggests folks would be better off hiring an attorney if their needs stray beyond the simplest will. As you would expect, there are a plethora of sites to help you find a pro to hire.

AttorneyFee, for example, offers comparisons of legal fees charged by attorneys based on the city they serve and area of practice. (For example, attorney fees for drafting a will can range from $175 to $3,500 in San Francisco.)

Another route is to work with legal aid services. However, access to such services is usually based on an individual's income and specific need of service, such as fair housing or access to health care.

Ellson, meanwhile, has embarked on another venture since folding The Island last year. Last month, she created a nonprofit website, the Alameda Community News Project. But unlike her last venture, setting this one up requires more legal wrangling, and she says she is locking down an attorney for the site.

Fast and cheap apparently doesn't always work.

Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google.


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17 Comments

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iormara

Attorneys are scum!

March 20 2012 at 5:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
seldenlaw

There is an old joke about the plumber, who comes to the house to fix a leak. He takes his wrench and bangs it on the wall, and it solves the problem. He asks for his fee, $100. The homeowner is surprised, and says "all you did was bang your wrench on the wall!". The plumber acknowledges this, but says "it's knowing where to bang the wrench on the wall". As an attorney, not only with a law degree but also with years of experience and continuing legal education, I know where to bang that wrench, and can out-lawyer a form any day of the week. People who use forms on their own are taking big risks, and often suffer the consequences. Far better to shop around for reasonably priced legal services whenever possible.

March 20 2012 at 5:24 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rweiss1547

One other comment from the do it yourseld divorce. When you do not get advice from a Lawyer and yes it will go through the Courts, when you do not take into consideration the future changes that may occur and you want to chang your agreement good luck. Most people do not realize you need a substantial change in circumstances to change the agreement. In other words they are screwed.

March 20 2012 at 3:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cathy

Expungement, you will need a copy of the court file and the case number, if you need photo copies there is usually a charge for this. You need to file for the expungement in the court where the issue in question occured. Courts from state to state vary on what they require.
Contact that court and see if you can do this yourself.

March 20 2012 at 3:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rosemarie

I was wondering if you had form and advice on filing paper work to explung a record . nothing bad, somethings done as a teenager. not suppose to be on record, but are, so never trust what law enforcesment tells you, may not be on record when it is pulled up, but if you talk to any home town police dept asking for records , they will make sure you get everything. even if you were under 18. I guess small town police dept have nothing better to do. I am willing to hire attorney to do this for me, but if i can do it my self for less money, I will. Most attorneys take your money and do nothing for you to earn it.

March 20 2012 at 3:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rweiss1547

Try to get someone who advises you on these to do Wills etc . to represent you in Court when someone contests an issue or if you did not ask for advise and you miss something what then? P.S I'm a Lawyer and have seen this over the years. As I tell people. Would you operate on yourself.

March 20 2012 at 3:06 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Cheryl Everett

As a consumer, I think these sites are wonderful tools, especially for someone with little money. However, as a paralegal, I would be careful doing things that involve your rights with respect to your money, property, children, family, etc. to a complete layman, which is what most people are when it comes to the law. I have seen several clients since I began doing this a few years ago, that came into our office to have things in their wills "fixed" because things that weren't done right were causing problems. And believe me, I don't say this because I encourage people to go to attorneys, they are generally WAY over priced for what they do (I can tell you my boss definately is), and they are almost ALWAYS more concerned with when they get paid than they are with their clients issues (Iknow my boss definately is). Just be careful, sometimes they are necessary. Again, there is a lot more to any legal action than just filling out paperwork and filing it with the court.

March 20 2012 at 3:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Syntak Ind

Were do you find an attorney willing to sue the credit reporting agencies

March 20 2012 at 2:39 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
kwikrdrvr

A will is the wrong way to go anyway. If you want to give your heirs their full shares and avoid probate court and all the costs involved in settling a will, do a revokable trust. Your attorney won't like it because he doesn't make money off of you, but your heirs will love you for it. You can do it yourself or have an attorney do it for you.

March 20 2012 at 2:35 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Howard

the wife's a family law/bankruptcy/DUI attorney and she loves the clowns who come in for their free consultation and pump her for anwsers/directions/tips on how to file motions and paperwork with the courts... she patiently answers their questions MINUS the key things they need to know... you know, things you learn in law school and how each courts'/judges' set up their rules to do anything.

naturally, these grifters think they're smarter than the wife and seem to believe they've cleverly gleaned what they need to know.

inevitably, after these legal geniuses have screwed everything up and pissed off the judges by wasting their time, they wind up back in the wife's office in urgent need of her services. she helps them out starting with a higher retainer than she charges clients who don't pull this crap.

March 20 2012 at 2:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Howard's comment
Cheryl Everett

I know, I'm a bankruptcy/estate planning/IRS paralegal and we get them all of the time! That's part of the reason we did away with the "free" consultations, now we just give those over the phone. That way they only get the barest information, if they want information that is substantive they will have to come in and pay for it. People just don't realize there is a LOT more to a legal action than just filling out paperwork and filing it with the court.

March 20 2012 at 2:54 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply