Finding an attorney is one more activity changed by the internet. At one time, we asked a friend or “let our fingers do the walking” through the Yellow Pages. (Today, that old familiar resource is virtually extinct.)What is more likely is that we go to our favorite search engine, type in some relevant phrases and start exploring.
Access to the internet has fed a D-I-Y trend in almost every field because of the amount of information now available. That trend has extended to legal issues, too, where self-representation has become more of the norm. Yet we still need access to documents and – occasionally – to legal counsel to confirm our strategy. That is where online legal services come in, to offer cost-effective ways to fill in most of the gaps.
- LawDepot provides access to four million legal documents
- Users and members can easily save and download legal documents
- Free trial membership to make sure that users are happy with the services
Despite a senior’s tendency to hold on to traditional means of doing certain things, even finding an attorney is undergoing a change. Our reliance on a word-of-mouth referral from a friend, a colleague or someone in the family is lessening. A recent survey found that only 38.6 percent said they relied on referrals and 15.5 percent already relied on internet searches. (The other means cited were ‘local media’ and ‘a prior relationship with an attorney.’)
When looking online for the solution to a legal issue, a common path has already been established. First, people will research the actual issue, looking for specific legal information related to their case. Next, they will start looking for a lawyer, by whatever means. They then seek to validate a lawyer. Once they are comfortable, they select a lawyer.
Websites offering ‘online legal services’ have sprung up that can short-circuit that process.If we can fill out and file legal forms on our own, we can save money while protecting ourselves and our assets. All we need is access to a full library of downloadable documents, which we can have with membership to such websites. Other websites allow us to buy only the exact form(s) needed, with no membership requirement. However, if we want or need actual legal advice, still other websites provide access to accredited attorneys at reduced rates, either a la carte or as part of a membership.
Among the legal issues seniors typically deal with are real estate related contracts, wills, durable powers of attorney, Advanced Health Care Directives (which include powers of attorney for health care and living wills) and drafting letters to vendors or creditors. A senior can define his or her need (‘document only,’ ‘advice only’ or ‘combined document-and-advice’), then search for companies that can specifically fulfill that need.
Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean that life is getting simpler. In fact, there are a series of issues that present themselves as we age and as our health declines, and many of these require the input of an attorney. However, with the hourly cost of local attorneys escalating, using websites to identify qualified attorneys looking for the type of work we require can match the two parties in an efficient and, often, less expensive way.
A trend exists to ‘unbundle’ our legal needs. This means we want to handle the portion that is within our knowledge and skill set (mostly related to document filing), but we want the oversight of an attorney to confirm that the strategy and implementation are correct. For example, if we ever had to go to court, all documents would need to be filled out and filed correctly to hold up in court. However, once we go from simply receiving legal information to receiving legal advice, the party providing that advice would have to be an attorney admitted to the bar in the state in question.
Having access to legal support through online legal services websites means you can:
- catch potential legal issues far earlier, before they become more serious;
- do a portion of the initial footwork yourself, thereby sharing the workload with whoever you hire to do the heavy lifting;
- keep the legal bill more affordable;
- expand your choice beyond a limited pool of attorneys if you live far from an urban center; and
- evaluate the record of the website itself through review websites, before committing to an attorney that it proposes to you.
While you still must remain engaged throughout the legal process, having access to such online legal services gives you a convenient alternative to local law firms that may not be willing to ‘unbundle’ services and may demand unaffordable rates. In any case, you do need to make a comparison.
When examining online legal services, we are concerned about the financial commitment (whether a one-time request or as an ongoing membership), how easy it is to work with the service, how easy it is to cancel if the relationship is ongoing, and how robust the customer service support is on the website.
In addition, you want to know what policy options are available to you and if there is a trial period. You want to know if you have access to downloadable documents, legal advice or both. Also, because you are dealing with legal issues, you want to know the financial strength of the company behind the service.
Hiring an attorney can be expensive, even for uncomplicated issues. However, with a little help, we may be able to handle a good deal of our legal issues ourselves. We need to have access to the correct form, fill it out correctly and file it at the courthouse correctly. The key word is ‘correctly.’ Online legal services can provide the forms we need, as well as offer some tips and suggestions on how to fill out and file them.
Nature of need: To select an online legal services company, first we need to assess the complexity of our specific legal issue or the ongoing complexity of our legal life. Some companies focus on business needs, and others focus on personal or family law. Some of the larger ones cover all aspects, which may be more appropriate if your needs are broad-based. That should be your first criterion for selecting a company.
State-specific: Next you want to be certain that the forms and advice you will receive will be state-specific since not all forms are applicable to all states. If you receive legal advice, you will want to check your state’s bar association to confirm the attorney’s credentials.
Support services: In addition to providing documents and forms, some legal services provide online legal guides which explain the more troublesome legal terminology and give you detailed instructions on how to fill out the forms. Some even provide preparation services, where an attorney can help you fill out and file the forms in your state. Others have attorneys on staff who you can question if you want to do the work yourself but have questions. And still others have directories of attorneys, so you can find someone near you if you want one-on-one assistance.
It is up to you to decide how much assistance you want. By examining the services offered by the different websites, you can select the one that best matches the needs you foresee.
Most websites offer extensive question-and-answer information, based on situations where other people have faced issues like yours and where you may find a viable solution. If not, if you become a member of a service, you should have access to prompt email support, as well as extended telephone and live chat hours to resolve the issue that is concerning you quickly.
Two areas differentiate what seniors prioritize from what others do: age-friendliness and health-related value.
Age friendliness: Seniors are more accustomed to one-on-one referred support when it comes to legal matters. Therefore, regardless how comfortable we might be making purchases and other transactions online, there is still a hesitation to turn legal issues over to ‘faceless strangers.’ Therefore, the friendlier the legal service's website, the better. We want to know exactly what commitment we are making and the range of services we are being offered.
As we age, we want greater and greater reassurance that our concerns are being met, and that we will not face unpleasant surprises. A well-developed legal services company can create a website and service that achieves that.
Health-related value: As our health declines, we become even more concerned about having all aspects of our estate and any medical interventions organized, so we can focus on healing or declining in peace. It is very important that the attorneys designated by any online service we select be able to provide that to us. Otherwise, we may find we are better served by someone local, on a one-on-one basis.
The fees related to online legal services vary dramatically from one service to another. Fees will depend on what you need from the service and how much you are willing to pay to have additional access to legal advice.
Documents: Some services offer unlimited access to their library of legal documents for a set fee that may range from $60 per year on the low end and $33 per month on the high end. Others charge simply for each document you download.
Legal advice: Other services offer access to attorneys as an a la carte purchase of time(for example, $39 for a 15-minute consultation with an attorney) or as part of a monthly or annual membership. Others offer different packages for different specific needs.
Both: Yet others offer a combination of access to documents and to attorneys.
The best strategy would be to assess how you think you would want to use a service and then to explore the different online legal services to see which meet your needs and your budget.
The evaluation criteria you would want to consider as you begin to research online legal services are the cost, the ease of getting the service set up, the ease of cancellation and the quality of the company’s customer service.
Cost: Payment for online legal services ranges from a one-time payment for a specific downloaded document or single service to a monthly, semi-annual or annual membership fee for access to legal advice, plus everything in between. While access to attorneys through online services is intended to save you money, it is important to know what your local attorneys would charge, so you can decide if the intervention of an online legal service does not make such access even more expensive.
Warranty: Some online legal services offer short trial periods, which serve as a warranty. Services that propose high-cost packages of access to attorneys might provide the ability to terminate the relationship early if a customer is not happy with the service. The fine print on the website or on any contract you sign must be checked.
Ease: From the time you land on a legal services company’s website, the description and cost of the services offered should be clear. The website itself should be easy to navigate and, regardless what service you request, payment should be an easy process.
Cancellation: Each online legal services company has its own cancellation policy. In some cases, you may have a 7-day trial period. If you do not cancel before the end of the period, you may be subscribed automatically for monthly service. It is important to read the fine print for whatever service you consider, so you know the degree of commitment you are making and if you can get out of it easily, should the service not turn out to be what you expected.
Customer Service: Because online legal services companies are assisting you with sensitive and stress-producing issues, the greater the access to assistance, the better. Some services are available only during normal business hours, Monday through Friday. At the opposite extreme, others are available 24/7 via the smartphone app, toll-free number or online chat. This should be one of your considerations, and it should reflect what would make you most comfortable in dealing with legal issues.
At times, seniors face problems that they cannot resolve themselves and that require legal assistance from a trained attorney. Unfortunately, not all seniors can afford to call an attorney without consideration of cost.
Fortunately, the growth of online legal services has increased the access to legal assistance for many seniors. By separating access to documents from access to formal legal advice, the cost of solving legal problems has dropped for many. In addition, some websites offer vast amounts of free information in the form of questions and answers, which may provide the solution to some seniors’ legal problems at no cost.
The wide range of pay structures that exist on the different legal services websites is a tremendous advantage. A senior in need should be able to find at least one that works, even if the senior is living on a limited income from Social Security, a pension or small savings.
In cases where seniors need more legal assistance than they can afford, virtually every state has many legal resources available. In addition to all the typical government agencies, local law schools, state bar associations and veterans’ associations offer discounted or pro bono services.
Because seniors face particularly important legal issues, Title III of the Older Americans Act makes funds available specifically for legal assistance to the elderly, 60 years of age and older. State-based senior legal helplines can also orient seniors towards resources. Where elder law is a recognized area of practice, attorneys specialized in this field are familiar with the special needs and problems elders face.