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Are Legal Forms Safe to Use?
Legal forms are all over the Internet. If you haven't heard a radio commercial recently advertising ready-to-use legal forms, that proves that you don't have a radio. Whether it's a lease agreement, a partnership contract or even a will, you are told that there is a legal form waiting for you. Legal Zoom, based on the amount of advertising it does, appears to be the twelve foot gorilla in this marketing space.
Ever since the first attorney drew up the first document for the first client, the idea of saving or reusing that document in the future was born. Almost any legal issue you can think of has been addressed before, so why reinvent the wheel and draft a new document every time the issue comes up?
Lawyers love legal forms. Without them the legal system would break down, with every lawyer tied up drafting brand new documents. But what lawyers don’t like is YOU using legal forms. The reason lawyers dislike legal forms is twofold: 1. The lawyer sincerely wants you to avoid legal trouble using a form that you may not understand, and 2. Templates mean less legal work and less fees. This doesn't mean that you should eliminate the attorney as I will discuss later.
Suppose you ask for a shareholder agreement for you and the co-owner of a business. This document can be 30 pages long or more. Do you think that your lawyer grabs a dictation machine and starts to draft the agreement from scratch? Of course not. He or she uses a legal form or template and fills in the blanks.
Let’s not be cynical. Lawyers perform a valuable function for you or your business. No template can completely replace the services of a lawyer.
But legal forms are here to stay. In the United States there is a wide variety of choices of legal form companies, and the forms are state specific, meaning that they have been drafted to conform to the particular laws of your state. A document that works in Los Angeles might not be appropriate for New York. If you search the web for “legal forms (your state)” you will find a great variety.
Are Legal Forms Safe to Use?
The big question is this: are these forms safe to use or can they get you into trouble? The answer requires common sense. Here are some guidelines for using legal forms:
- For a complicated matter that you don’t understand, forget a form and see a lawyer. Why would you sign something that isn’t clear?
- Evaluate the legal form company carefully. Search the web its name followed by “reviews” or “complaints.”
- Always put a firm termination date at the end of any legal agreement. If you got something wrong, you won’t have to live with it forever.
- Proofread carefully what you have added.
- Do not change the words without discussing it with your lawyer.
Should You Have Your Completed Form Reviewed by a Lawyer?
This is where common sense comes into play. If your sole objective is to save as much money as possible, and to use a legal form as a substitute for attorney fees, you may be making a costly mistake.
Besides legal knowledge, a lawyer has experience. Take, for example, a residential lease, and you're the landlord. So you've purchased, cheaply, a legal form from a reputable company. You fill in the blanks, and you think you're good to go. Well, maybe. Here are a few areas where your attorney can add value to that form because of his or her experience and knowledge:
· Pets. Too often an off-the-shelf lease agreement will have a check off box, saying "Pets allowed, Yes/No." Your lawyer, based on problems she has seen in the past, may suggest to you that you have a provision for "dog barking," that says "Dogs shall be kept inside at all times, except for walking and exercise. Excessive dog barking shall be a violation of the lease. Excessive is defined as three or more complaints from other tenants or neighbors within a 90 day period." I had this experience myself with a rental unit. The neighbors, some of whom were commercial tenants in an adjacent building, were going crazy because my residential tenant left a dog out in the yard at all times during the day, and it never stopped barking. I learned the hard way. The lease simply said that pets were allowed. Your attorney may also want to provide that the dog shall be leashed at all times when outside. Legal forms don't answer every question.
· Smoking. Indoor smoking can permeate walls, ducts and vents, and can make life miserable (arguably unhealthy) for a neighboring tenant. Your lawyer may suggest a clause that says that smoking is allowed in outside areas only.
· Taxes. Your lawyer may suggest that you include a clause that says the tenant will be responsible for any property tax increase beyond a stated base. Although this is common in commercial leases, you may want it in a residential lease as well.
A lawyer's advice on the above three items alone can more than justify the fee you are charged.
Have a Frank Discussion With Your Attorney
Lawyers know that standardized legal forms are commonly used. Why not simply tell the lawyer that you have filled one in but would like to review it with her? Ask what the fee would be. It shouldn't be very high. The lawyer will spend a small amount of time for a reasonable fee, and you will have the advantage of lowering your legal costs by using the form, plus you benefit by having a seasoned lawyer look over your shoulder.
Legal forms and templates are here to stay and the amount of forms available increases every day. Using them can save you time and money, but I don't suggest that you use them as a substitute for seeking legal advice.
The writer of this article is the author of Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails.
Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran