Electronic Wills & The Internet: Is LegalZoom Involved In The Unauthorized Practice of Law or Is Their Success Simply Ruffling The Legal Profession's Feathers?
By: Brandon Schwarzentraub
Over the last twenty years, the Internet has revolutionized almost every aspect of our lives. Increased access to information has benefited private individuals and hurt major companies. For example, the ease of online bill paying has nearly put the post office out of business, and online shopping has virtually done away with the need to go to the actual store. In the legal profession, Lexis and Westlaw have done away with the need to have a paper law library. With the onset of online legal forms and services, the Internet is threatening to do away with the need to go into an attorney’s office for many transactional law services.
While computers and the Internet have been welcome additions to most law practices, it was not until recently that law firms implemented computers to assist lawyers in research and document creation. In that aspect, computers have completely revolutionized the legal profession. The prominence of Lexis and Westlaw suffice to illustrate this point. However, computer technology and the internet have now taken this technology outside of the law office and are making it easier for non-lawyers to access legal information and legal forms.
LegalZoom, a frontrunner of the Internet lawyering phenomenon, has attracted a large amount of attention and market share and has faced class action lawsuits in both California and Missouri. The Missouri suit alleged that LegalZoom not only provides online questionnaires that are translated into legal documents, but they have a customer service department run by non-lawyers that allegedly answers legal questions. It is arguable that these suits are arising from the fact that LegalZoom is making millions of dollars a year by offering these online legal services for much less than “traditional” lawyers charge. However, online legal services may not be taking business away from “traditional” lawyers. They may simply be providing legal service to individuals who would not consult a lawyer in the first place because they cannot afford the consultation. With the large amount of people dying intestate each year, a strong argument can be made for permitting these online services to create wills or trusts. The legal community, however, must balance these arguments with the time-tested tradition of allowing lawyers, and only lawyers, to give legal advice for compensation.
The online creation of wills is now a highly disputed area. The question presented to the legal community is when do online companies step into the area of practicing law without a license? This comment will address the relatively new field of Internet lawyering, specifically focusing on online will creation. Part I will provide a general overview of the current online will preparation companies and the specific services they offer. Part II will discuss the creation of LegalZoom and the attention it is getting from different state authorities. Part III will discuss the lawsuit against LegalZoom in California for deceptive trade practices. Part IV will discuss the lawsuit against LegalZoom in Missouri for the unauthorized practice of law and will discuss cases in Missouri pertaining to the unauthorized practice of law. Part V will discuss the history and requirements of will formalities. Part VI will discuss Nevada’s electronic will statute and looks at the problems associated with implementing the statute. Finally, Part VII draws a conclusion about where this area of the law is going.