Metro – It’s buyer beware for online legal services. This was in today’s online edition of Metro. (I assume in the print edition too, but I don’t read either edition regularly, so I can’t say if it was).
The writer does have a point – as with any services you buy, whether online or offline, “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware” should be your mantra when buying legal services online. But I’d like to point out in this post that there are a number of ways you can get legal services online, and an “online lawyer” is not necessarily a bad thing.
Legal Forms – Lots of non-lawyer companies sell legal products to the public – Corporation Centre sells incorporations and organizing documents. Legal Zoom sells precedent contracts. Their products are cheap, seem to suit your needs and are readily accessible. However, as most of you know, these products are standard and won’t necessarily fit your particular. And most of you know not to rely completely on these forms for your businesses.
Lawyer Prepared Forms – Then there are legal forms and precedents that are prepared by lawyers and are made available on the internet. I know of those that are provided for free and those that are provided for a fee. This is where most people stumble – the common misconception is that just because a form is prepared by a lawyer it is completely suitable to be used in a business. A form prepared by a lawyer that practices in your jurisdiction is definitely better than one prepared by a company that is located in the US – it captures location-specific laws, is drafted more clearly and probably takes into account specific situations that a non-lawyer wouldn’t consider. However, such a lawyer-prepared form does not guarantee that your company is protected from all situations that are specific to your company. And these forms always include a disclaimer that clearly states this and advises you to consult with a lawyer.
Online Lawyer or Virtual Law Office – The third type of online legal services are the “virtual law offices” or an “online lawyer” In this case, you actually consult with a lawyer through the internet – either through email, skype, or a secure portal. The lawyer discusses your particular situation with you, asks all the right questions and then provides you with legal counsel that is right for you, including drafting legal documents for you if required. Sometimes, as with Heritage Law in BC, the document drafting process is largely automated, but there is a lawyer on the back-end who makes sure that the end-result is suited to your needs. What about these services? Should you shy away from them? Well, that largely depends on how comfortable you feel with conducting your legal affairs online and how good your online lawyer is. There are several examples of lawyers who have embraced online practices and this method of providing legal services has been seriously discussed since at least 2004 (that’s 7 years ago, and the technology has only improved since then).
I think that it is also important to point out that the Law Society of Upper Canada does not prohibit lawyers from providing legal services online as long as the lawyer adheres to the Rules of Professional Conduct. For example, in Ontario lawyers have to conduct a conflicts check, ensure that all communications are confidential and privacy is maintained. These aspects work well with online legal services considering that portals that provide for legal collaboration are built on stringent security standards and store client information in a database that can be easily searched. On the other hand, lawyers in Ontario can’t accept advance payments for services through e-commerce payment companies such as PayPal (All advance payments must go directly to the lawyer’s trust account while e-commerce payment solutions hold payments in a holding account for a short period of time before transferring them to the vendor’s account). This doesn’t provide for an elegant payment procedure, but it is what it is.
Online legal services aren’t for everyone. Depending on how sophisticated or not your business is, how legal-savvy you are and how comfortable you are working and collaborating online, any one or none of these options could be right for your business. But I wouldn’t discount all online legal services just because they are offered virtually without a physical office or face-to-face meetings. The business world is changing. The legal profession does not have to be stuck in a rut.
Sapna Mahboobani is a business and technology lawyer at Sapna Law Professional Corporation. She provides both online legal services and traditional face-to-face legal counsel for your business. If you would like more information on her online legal services, you can contact her and she will be happy to answer your questions.