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“I can buy software and make my own will for less than $100. Why should I hire you?”
Yes, you can buy software and draft your own will. Several years ago, I did just that. And I realized when I was in law school that the will would have created problems and substantial inconvenience for whoever would have had to handle it, had I died. I also learned that it failed to consider several very important facts and factors, and some of the wording I'd taken the liberty to change was ambiguous at best. In short, the software itself tells you this (taken from a Quicken Family Lawyer document I just created from an old copy of the software):
“This software is not a substitute for legal advice.”
“What about those E-Z forms at the office supply store?”
When you use a prepared, fill-in-the-blank legal form, you may or may not get the results you want. Is this the right form for your needs? Is it legal in your state? Did you put the right information in the right blank? Did someone explain to you the legal effect of the document, and what you must do to reverse it?
I recently encountered pre-printed forms for a Last Will and Testament and General Power of Attorney. Both had been completed in 2004, but the form had last been revised in 2001. Both forms had this disclaimer on the bottom:
“© 1992-2001 Made E-Z Products. Rev. 10/01. This product does not constitute the rendering of legal advice or services. This product is intended for informational use only and is not a substitute for legal advice. State laws vary, so consult an attorney on all legal matters. This product was not necessarily prepared by a person licensed to practice law in your state.”
“I got an ad in the mail for a really cheap will. Why should I pay you more than that?”
There are legal services that will work very cheaply. Some do good work. Legal Aid works for free, if you qualify due to low income, and they generally do excellent work. Unfortunately, there are services that will provide you limited legal services, cutting costs by cutting corners. Here's one example, which came from an actual conversation with a colleague, recently shared in e-mail:
“I know that I've had one client who came to me with a serious LLC partner/dissolution issue and the Operating Agreement [the discount legal service] used was WORTHLESS. There were no functional mechanisms to deal with disputes or leaving partners. They ended up killing the company, and he got shanked.”
It is most certainly true that you deserve value for your money. That's why it's critical that you know and trust your attorney. Only you can decide if the matter you're facing is the sort of thing you want to put out for the lowest bidder. Maybe it's OK to have the runway paved by the lowest bidder. Do you want the lowest bidder packing your parachute?
“I don't need a lawyer; I just have a quick question.”
If you don't need a lawyer, why did you call a lawyer with your quick question? Perhaps you could have posed your question to a grocery clerk, or your dry cleaner. In the law, there are millions of quick questions. There are very few quick answers.
Nearly every attorney has heard this disclaimer, or some variation on it. Maybe the caller will call several attorneys, hoping to eventually construct a legal argument on their own, from a string of questions. Often, the questions are based on the answer the last lawyer gave. Or, maybe they'll just try to keep the lawyer on the phone long enough to get whatever advice or recommendation they're looking for without paying. However you look at it, it's what we call self-help. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, it's disastrous.
You've heard it before: You get what you pay for. Attorneys are in the business of giving legal advice and providing legal support. Would you go to your butcher, choose just one pork chop, and hope to leave without paying, because you just needed a snack?
Many attorneys will give an initial consultation at no charge or for a very modest fee, and will almost always screen clients even before the initial consultation to see if there's even a legal matter at issue. Let's face it: I don't want to charge a client only to discover there's nothing I can do for her, so I'll ask questions and explore your answers until we know whether you actually have a problem the law can solve, or at least whether it looks like there's a chance. Then, if it looks like I can help you, we'll talk about what it might cost, and then you can decide whether it's worth it. I will do all I can to solve your problem cost-effectively; if I don't, you're not likely to come back. I don't want a client I can't help, or a case I can't possibly win, any more than you want an attorney who doesn't really seem to care about you.
When you try to squeeze free legal advice out of an attorney, then act on your own, you assume the risk and consequences of what you do. Unless you're absolutely certain you shared enough information to ensure that the answer you received was correct, you could find out the hard way that some detail you failed to share made a big difference. Most attorneys have malpractice insurance, and they do not want to have to use it. Therefore, they will be thorough enough to be certain that the actions taken or the advice given won't lead to bigger problems down the road.
When you actually pay for legal advice and assistance, you get not only the answer (short or long) to your “quick question,” you also get research, follow-up, malpractice insurance, years of training, and a detached, objective third-person who can act on your behalf and in your interest, but who can maintain enough distance that emotion won't get in the way of getting the best possible outcome. That's why most lawyers hire other lawyers to handle their legal problems.
Remember, too, that lawyers are people like you, with families, mortgages, and student loans. Our time, knowledge, and experience are the products we sell to make a living.
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