I love the Internet. I love that I can find things out quickly and definitively. I’ve learned about things I never would have otherwise. In fact, did you know that crocodiles can’t stick their tongues out, every episode of Seinfeld had a Superman in it, and that nearly all lipsticks contain fish scales? But, as we all know, there are lots of things that aren’t true, or are incomplete or not quite accurate on the Internet. (Although, I am personally glad that Mr. Rogers wasn’t really a Navy SEAL!)
I was recently asked by a friend if I practiced a particular area of law. It isn’t one of my main areas (business, employment, arts, privacy, intellectual property) so I looked through my contacts for another attorney I could refer her to. Unfortunately, every potential lead I had came up dry – it was a rather specialized field she needed. But I hate disappointing friends, especially friends who’ve asked for help.
One of my contacts referred me to the New York State Bar Association’s website about the particular topic. It had forms, checklists, and all the items a lawyer needs to begin to be able to practice in this area. I was tempted. And then I realized: checklists don’t beat experience; forms don’t replace insight.
When people need legal help – a will, a contract of sale, a dispute letter – if they don’t have a family member or close friend who is a lawyer, many will do what I did and turn to the Internet. A quick Google search and you’ll find a lot of resources, some free, some not, that say they have the solution to your particular situation.
But there is another price to pay for those resources – the price of inexperience. It can often seem that lawyers are very expensive. (Full disclosure: some are.) But the cost of not consulting a lawyer can far exceed any fees charged. Don’t download a will and later discover that it isn’t valid in NYS. Don’t use a contract from a website and later discover that it put all of the risk on you and none on the other party. And worse, it didn’t cover the one thing you cared the most about.
Often lawyers will work on a flat fee basis for simple projects, that way you don’t worry that the meter is always running. Others are willing to cap fees at a certain amount. The variations can be endless. But before you just use something from the Internet, at least consult with a qualified attorney near you; many even offer free consultations. It may be the best investment you’ve ever made.