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As certain legal services have become increasingly commoditized by do-it-yourself websites like LegalZoom.com and RocketLawyer.com, some small and solo practitioners have wondered whether the phenomenon is just one more thing they must contend with in an already difficult market.

But attorneys across Pennsylvania said they’ve come to find that lawyers and online legal services companies can peacefully co-exist—and, in some cases, even benefit from one another—because lawyers offer something those websites can’t: real-world experience.

Still, the rise of DIY legal services has required some adapting on the part of practitioners, they said.

When Kim R. Smith took over as managing partner of Lancaster, Pa.-based Hartman Underhill & Brubaker on Jan. 1, she announced that one of her main initiatives would be to look at how legal services companies are affecting the firm’s business and map out a strategy to compete with them.

Smith said she had become aware of those companies, like most people, through their advertising. But she became more and more concerned about them as her firm’s clients began bringing them up more frequently.

“Our own clients will come to us and say, ‘I have this agreement or this power of attorney or this will. Would you review it?’” Smith said. “We also have clients who have said, ‘I don’t want to spend a whole lot of money, so can you send me some links to [legal services] websites that are good and reputable?’”

And it’s not just individual trusts and estates clients who have begun turning to so-called “canned” legal documents.

Smith said some of her firm’s small business clients have started using online services to draft their own employment documents, as have many of the firm’s public sector clients, who have taken to those services in an effort to save taxpayer funds.

According to Smith, one of the ways Hartman Underhill has sought to combat losing work to those companies has been to offer more inexpensive options.

Smith said that, when clients come to the firm with very simple needs, Hartman Underhill attorneys generally don’t try to discourage them from going the DIY route and will often help direct them to the right place.

“But what we also will do is let them know we have template documents we can provide that we’ve already reviewed, at a much lower cost” than having an attorney draft one from scratch, Smith said.

The firm has also begun pushing certain, less complex work to paralegals and younger associates in an effort to provide clients with more savings, while still offering quality work product, Smith said.

Even if a client does choose to fill out a downloaded document on his or her own, Smith added, her firm will often suggest bringing the completed document in for review by one of its attorneys.

Smith said offering the type of insight and expertise that can only be developed through law school training and years of real-world experience is the key for firms like hers to remain vital to clients who prefer to use online documents.

“Sometimes we’ll say, ‘You’re welcome to do it, but we’d suggest you have the final document reviewed by us to make sure nothing’s missing,’” Smith said. “That seems to work really well because they understand we’re not trying to create work for ourselves.”

Still, while it may theoretically be more cost-effective for a client to download a file, fill in the blanks and have a lawyer look it over than it would be to have a lawyer draft the document from scratch, that’s not always the case in practice, Smith said.

This is particularly true with regard to employer clients who rely on downloaded templates to draft complex documents like social media policies, which often need to be tailored specifically to each company and can quickly become outdated as technology evolves and the National Labor Relations Board continues to issue new guidelines.

“Sometimes it could end up being more expensive” to have a lawyer review a document after the fact, Smith said. “We’ve had instances where companies will bring in a canned policy manual or handbook and, depending on the source, it can sometimes be more time-consuming to review it than it would have been to draft it.”

Smith said the firm has encountered similar situations with employer clients who bring in separation agreements, releases and waivers they’ve cobbled together by cutting and pasting from different online documents they’ve found.

Robert B. Wolf, a trusts and estates attorney at Tener, Van Kirk, Wolf and Moore in Pittsburgh, said it’s for precisely this reason that the value of live legal counsel cannot be underestimated in the age of downloadable documents.

When asked whether he perceives websites that let nonlawyers draft their own legal documents as a legitimate business threat, Wolf likes to tell the story of the multimillionaire industrialist and engineer from western Pennsylvania who, after hiring some of the best lawyers in Pittsburgh to draft his will, decided to finish it off himself.

According to Wolf, everything about the will was fine except for one detail: It neglected to take into account the possibility that the industrialist’s daughter might never marry or have children.

Fifty years later, Wolf said, it took 27 lawyers from 18 different firms to try to sort out who were the rightful beneficiaries of the man’s significant fortune.

While that story predates legal services websites by several decades, the sentiment still applies: When it comes to complex areas of the law, even the smartest nonlawyers can overlook details attorneys are trained to spot.

Or, as both Wolf and Willow Grove, Pa.-based trusts and estates lawyer Jeremy A. Wechsler put it in separate interviews, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

In that respect, Wolf said, DIY legal services sites actually may end up generating more work for attorneys, as people attempt to navigate complicated legal issues using one-size-fits-all documents they found on the Internet.

“I used to say, ‘You can do it yourself—you can also pull out your own tooth, but in the long run it’s probably going to hurt more than if you go to the dentist,’” Wolf said.

Still, Wolf acknowledged that there is a “tremendous unfulfilled need” for quality, inexpensive legal services and said there is a way to offer certain basic legal documents at low or no cost to the consumer.

Wolf pointed to a recent initiative he helped orchestrate between the Allegheny County Bar Association and the Allegheny County Medical Society, in which the two entities came together to draft a free, downloadable health care power of attorney and living will form that has been vetted, and is kept up-to-date, by a cadre of legal and medical professionals.

But Wolf and others agreed that not every legal document can or should be commoditized and everyone had an anecdote to explain why.

Wechsler said he once reviewed a trust a client had drafted by himself using a downloaded template that inadvertently left nothing to his wife.

“Everything went from him right to the kids and that was not his intention,” Wechsler said. “I think if you do it yourself and you don’t have a trained pair of eyes look at a legal document you essentially have a big problem.”

At least some of the online companies offering DIY legal documents seem to recognize the value in having an actual lawyer review the finished product.

LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, for example, both offer one-on-one consultations with practicing lawyers across the country who also are available to review finished documents.

But Wechsler, who said he’s listed as part of Rocket Lawyer’s nationwide network of “On Call” attorneys, said the true advantage of actually hiring a lawyer rather than simply using an online service continues to be the personal connection.

Particularly in an area like estate planning, with its complex tax issues and sensitivity to the most minor details, Wechsler said, it’s essential to tailor legal advice to each client’s specific situation.

“I always tell my clients, ‘The value is not in the paper I’m going to give to you, it’s really in the consultation,’” Wechsler said. “‘In that time I spend speaking with you, I get to learn about your family, what you need and what you don’t need.’”

Wolf agreed, saying he cannot adequately assist a client with an estate planning issue “until I know the facts and the family.”

Still, while Wolf said he doesn’t view the commoditization of certain legal services as a threat to his business because most of what’s offered online is relatively unsophisticated, he acknowledged that the quality of those services will likely improve in the future, forcing lawyers to take a hard look at the value they’re providing to their own clients.

If a website or consumer product does come along “that does it cheaper and just as well as you do, you better figure out how to adapt to that,” Wolf said, adding that lawyers can stay competitive by continuing to utilize technology “to do a better job more efficiently.”

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •