Self-help legal websites such as LegalZoom, Nolo and Rocket Lawyer are no match for a real lawyer, Consumer Reports concludes in an evaluation of the three sites published in its September issue. The magazine recently used each of the sites to create four legal forms — a will, a car bill of sale for a seller, a home lease for a small landlord, and a promissory note — and then asked three law professors to evaluate them in a blind test. Their verdict:

Using any of the three services is generally better than drafting the documents yourself without legal training or not having them at all. But unless your needs are simple — say, you want to leave your entire estate to your spouse — none of the will-writing products is likely to entirely meet your needs. And in some cases, the other documents aren’t specific enough or contain language that could lead to “an unintended result.”

For drafting a will, the professors found Nolo’s will-writing software Quicken WillMaker Plus (a $42.99 Windows download) to be the best option of the three — although “best” in this context was only “competent” and “far from ideal.” For anyone needing anything other than a simple will, no site was up to the task, they said. In some cases, the sites cut off options that should have been allowed; in others, they allowed consumers to add language that could create internal conflicts.

With regard to the other types of documents, the professors were not satisfied with any of them. Nolo’s lease had an omission that one professor called a “black mark” and documents from the other sites did not always appear tailored to the correct jurisdiction.

The professors who evaluated the documents were Gerry W. Beyer of Texas Tech University School of Law, who specializes in estates and trusts; Richard K. Neumann Jr. of Hofstra University, a contract specialist; and Norman I. Silber, an expert in consumer and commercial law at Hofstra and Yale.

For Consumer Reports, the bottom line on these sites is that they offer basic legal advice that might help save money on a lawyer, but that many consumers are better off consulting a lawyer. For me, the bottom line is that here we have an independent consumer watchdog confirming what many lawyers have long said: If you resort to self-help for legal matters, you do so at your own risk.

  • Over on the Solosez e-mail list, we extensively discussed this article back in July, when the issue was mailed to subscribers. The discussion soon turned to CR’s policy:

    “Published information from Consumer Reports, including our Ratings and Reports, is intended solely for the benefit of our subscribers and other consumers, in order to help them make informed choices and decisions about consumer products, services, and other consumer matters. Such information may not be used by others in advertising or to promote a company’s product or service. In addition, this policy precludes any commercial use of any of Consumer Reports’ published information in any form, or of the names of Consumers Union, Consumer Reports, or any other of Consumer Reports’ publications or services, without our express written permission.”

    This policy seems to be aimed at discouraging any other media outlets (such as this blog) from reporting about CR findings. As a media law expert and former newspaper editor, what do you think of this policy?

    • Lisa, I don’t read it that way. The language seems intended to discourage companies from using CR reviews in advertising and commercial materials. Certainly, the news media (including blogs) would have every right to report on CR’s findings.

  • At first I thought that the experts did a blind test to compare the documents prepared by the online sites to documents prepared by attorneys. But they didn’t. They simply analyzed the forms based on their own knowledge of what forms should contain.

    I wonder what would happen if they added to the blind analysis forms created by attorneys who bill somewhere on the gradient from $50 to $75 to $100 to $200 to $300 an hour. That would make for a more valid comparison. Isn’t that what consumer reports aimed to show? How a will created by an internet site compares to a will created by a real lawyer? If so, that should’ve been the comparison.


    • shg

      A link to yourself in Bob’s comments, Josh? That’s the conduct of an unmitigated, shameless whore. You really don’t want to be like that, do you, Josh?

      Control that urge to use every opportunity to shamelessly promote yourself. It’s unbecoming.

  • I agree with Josh, and I would really like to see such a comparison. The study was far too simple and subjective, but the obvious outcome is the same – if it comes to more complex issues, it’s much better to hire someone who specializes in it. Computer systems by far cannot address such matters.

    A little aside – sometime ago I had an occasion to read a study comparing private and public defenders with the outcome that there is virtually no difference having either as your representative.

    Samantha Parker

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