As lawyers, we’ve all likely been approached by family members who need a “quick Will,” advice about something at work, or just need help finding a lawyer. A few weeks ago my dad told me that he used LegalZoom for his own Will, bypassing hiring an attorney, let alone consulting me (though I’d probably be a bad candidate to consult).
Why LegalZoom? Three reasons:
I’ve posted before about the issue of cost and convenience in using online legal form services (here and here), but I’ve not yet mentioned risk as a factor in why a consumer makes a decision about what legal (or non-legal) service to use. My dad, a well-educated retired college professor, summed it up this way: “No one in the family is going to raise a stink.” Which is true. I couldn’t imagine anyone in my family challenging his Will, fighting over assets, or bickering about how dad wants to distribute those assets. It’s just not our style.
He saw himself as an older model Ford F150 with a basic engine and some pretty basic needs. Whether it is true or not, he did not see himself as a more complicated car with a fuel-injected engine and electronic stabilization control.Sure, the attorney in you is thinking “But, . . .” and coming up with all the scenarios that challenge my (and my dad’s) ideal of a functional family. And I acknowledge that any number of things can happen to divide our family or my siblings, now or in the future. But, here’s the deal: in considering what to do and who to hire for drafting a Will, my dad considered the possibilities and, for whatever reason, discounted the risk associated with an online non-lawyer form service. He went with a low-cost non-legal service because, despite the risk that it wasn’t likely as good as a Will from an attorney, he felt it was “good enough.”
I think of risk this way: I used to own a rusty Ford F150, which I loved. When I took it into the mechanic after it broke down, I asked the mechanic to look at it and let me know what I have to do. I knew I had a good mechanic when he would tell me three things: 1) what was immediately wrong with the truck; and 2) what risks I had of it breaking down if I only fixed some of what was wrong; and 3) whether it was worth it to fix everything or just fix what was immediately wrong to make it functional again. I then made an informed decision, one influenced by risk and by my cash flow at the time. If I opted to do the minimum and fix only what was immediately a problem, I made my decision knowing that I took the risk of it breaking down or even becoming worthless if one of the unaddressed problems suddenly became the problem. If I wanted to try to assure that my truck kept going another 100,000 miles, I could spend a lot more money and have all of the problems fixed. But I rarely did that. It wasn’t worth it.
My dad did roughly the same thing. He looked at what he perceived to be the cost for hiring an attorney who would look at the entirety of his situation and provide a comprehensive approach to his estate plan. Or he could realistically “take a chance” and assume that a LegalZoom Will was “good enough.” He knew that a LegalZoom Will, like the Ford F150, could break down and could possibly cause problems for his family later if it did not take into account certain scenarios or if it got the distribution of assets wrong. But he took that into consideration, used his personal knowledge of his assets and the context of his own family, and made the choice to go with what many believe is a riskier solution. Why? Cost, convenience, and because he perceived it to be good enough. He saw himself as an older model Ford F150 with a basic engine and some pretty basic needs. Whether it is true or not, he did not see himself as a more complicated car with a fuel-injected engine and electronic stabilization control. (Or, as Andrea pointed out to me in our discussions here in the office, he also wasn’t a Ford F150 who wanted to change into a convertible and leave his worldly goods to the family cat, something the LegalZooms of the world are not well-situated to address).
I’m not saying that my dad made the right decision or that it’s right for people to go LegalZoom and discount the value of an attorney– I’m just saying that consumers less and less frequently recognize the value of hiring an attorney to consider a comprehensive and more complicated solution, but at a potentially greater cost. It’s part perception, part reality. A common perception, whether right or wrong, is that attorneys complicate things. And it’s reality because, well, attorneys do complicate things. Or, more accurately, attorneys outline potential complications so that clients can make well-informed decisions. Can attorneys go overboard? Yes, and that’s the challenge. How do you convince a consumer that what you offer is better because it has the added value of an attorney’s involvement? How do you get across to me that, even though I just want to fix the steering column on my Ford F150, I actually need to look at all the interrelated parts of an engine that stand a good chance of breaking down tomorrow?
Update on my own quest for a Will. My wife and I have retained an attorney to draft estate planning documents and have met with that attorney already to begin the process. I’ll get more details out as I can, though I do want to respect the attorney’s work product and any concerns about confidentiality and privacy. Suffice it to say, though, that two Wills (one for me, one for my wife) along with appropriate powers of attorney and health care directives will cost us $500, which includes a slight discount for the attorney’s “friend or family” rate (a nice touch, I might add).