Self-Help Legal Sites No Match for Real Lawyer, Consumer Reports Says

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.