The fees charged for legal services in the U.S., like almost all other costs, have been continuing to climb, and are now accelerating in lockstep with our actual rate of price inflation (which is several percentage points higher than the laughable CPI numbers put out by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Moreover, there are no indications that this trend will reverse or even slow down anytime soon, as attorneys and legal firms continue to pass along increases in their own costs of operations.
Rising legal expenses are but one reason why a greater number of individuals and businesses have been turning to do-it-yourself alternatives, such as free downloadable forms, step-by-step guides for forming corporations and dissolving marriages, and other lower-cost solutions. This is especially true for individuals and families with low incomes or net worth, for whom attorneys fees would overwhelm the financial advantages of their objectives. It also applies to small businesses that do not have their own legal teams or cannot afford to retain attorneys.
Some forms of legal assistance are decidedly brick-and-mortar, including community legal clinics, law guides found in one's local library, and attorneys who graciously offer their services at no cost to low-income people ("pro bono"). On the other hand, a growing percentage of helpful and free legal resources can be found on the Internet, such as extensive articles, websites that generate wills and other legal forms, and "virtual lawyers" that can answer simple questions.
In this article, I will take a look at some of the better resources available for anyone choosing to go this route. Naturally, I cannot dispense any legal advice here, nor should anything in this article be construed as legal advice. But I can point you in the right direction for seeking the resources to get you started.
More Paperwork, Please
Perhaps the type of online legal assistance that people seek most frequently, is obtaining common legal forms, such as wills, rental agreements, subcontractor agreements, and health care durable power of attorney (DPA) forms.
One place to begin such a search is the Internet Legal Research Group. Their website boasts thousands of legal forms and downloadable files, all designed to help the layperson. Even though they are primarily geared to U.S. visitors, they apparently have links to more than 4000 websites in 237 other countries.
Another website worth checking is that of Legaldocs, which makes it possible for you to create customized legal documents and forms online, simply by answering some questions. Once the document or form has been generated for you, you can download it to your computer or send it directly to your printer. Even though they charge up to about $90 for the more complex documents, a large number of the documents are free. These include wills, promissory notes, credit report requests, child care forms, insurance forms, and a few others.
Some websites offer more specialized legal forms. For example, U.S. Living Will Registry focuses on advance directive forms, which allow you to specify ahead of time what sort of health care and life support you want in the case of incapacity. QuickForm Contracts allows you to automatically generate contract documents for IT work.
Last and certainly not least in terms of popularity, is Nolo, which offers a wide range of forms, articles, and even software. Nolo's material is grouped into several categories: business and human resources, patents and copyrights, wills and estate planning, property and money, family law and immigration, rights and disputes. Even though not all of their materials are free, they have an outstanding reputation, and are well-regarded for their legal guides and up-to-date information.
Other Resources Online
If you are trying to decipher the legalese found in a document, and Webster's just isn't cutting it, then be sure to try the Law.com Law Dictionary. WWLIA's Law Dictionary, Nolo's Legal Dictionary, and Duhaime's Law Dictionary are all intended to explain law terms in everyday language.
For more specialized areas, you could check out the Glossary Agent, which has links to dictionaries focused on bankruptcy, civil procedures, maritime law, personal injury, insolvency, and international law. They even have a link to a site devoted to civil law in Latvia, if only to prove that no corner of the planet is immune from becoming litigious.
Virtual Lawyers is an interesting service. It consists of law students who are willing to discuss and analyze your case at no charge, and then pass it along to an actual law firm, which then informs you as to what the cost would be if they were to represent you. This might be an inexpensive way to get some knowledgeable opinion on your situation, even though it is clearly identified as not being legal advice.
Call in the Cavalry
If none of the above resources are sufficient for your needs, and you decide to find an attorney in your area, the Internet can still be of great value. For instance, if your financial circumstances limit you to seeking help from an attorney on a pro bono basis, then be sure to check out the list of free legal service providers, offered by the U.S. Department of Justice. It has a large number of attorneys listed, for 37 states. As expected, California appears to have the most lawyers, including those willing to work pro bono.
Not only does LawInfo have thousands of free legal guides on their website, but they make it easy for you to find an attorney, based upon a particular area of law and your own location (by area code, or city and state). Another resource for locating an attorney, is Lawyers.com, run by LexisNexis.
If, after slogging your way through the dense thicket of a typical legal document, you are ready to sell your belongings and live under a bridge, be sure to take a break and exercise your right to laugh. One place to begin this restoration of sanity is Stella Awards, which chronicles the sad yet true mess of ridiculous lawsuits. Overlawyered.com hopes to expose the dangers and downsides of excessive litigation. Lawyer Jokes and Cartoons is just that, and aims to be the most extensive collection.
Besides, you probably will need a laugh, after you find out how much a high-priced attorney wants to charge you for having his summer intern fill in the blanks of a form with your information, which you could've done online.