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Download a template or see a lawyer?

19 Apr 2011

You are about to enter into a business deal, but you have been burned before: you know you need a legal agreement to protect your interests. 

Do you trawl the internet for a template and fix it up yourself, or do you see a lawyer and risk a bill for $1000s? 

This is a dilemma faced by business owners every day and increasing numbers are looking to the internet for help. There is a good reason why.

The internet has changed everything

Before the internet, knowledge was power. But now, knowledge can be acquired at the click of a mouse. Type a search term into Google and it will produce pages of references for you to scour for what you need. Many businesses and industries have adapted to this internet revolution. 

They realise that it’s not what you know, but what you do with that knowledge and how you package it that matters to their customers. For example, I could learn how to build a car from searching the internet, but I will still buy from Audi, BMW, etc. because their product will be much better than anything I can produce. I can also diagnose my own illness from the internet, but it won’t stop me going to a doctor.

Lawyers haven’t figured this out yet

The majority of lawyers, on the other hand, haven’t figured out this simple truth: that knowledge of the law no longer gives them their competitive advantage. They still believe their competitive advantage lies in their precedent library of legal documents (which probably have been copied from other lawyers anyway!). 

There is no doubt that their library is valuable intellectual property, but their clients want more because it is what they do with that template to tailor it for the client’s specific needs that adds real value to the service delivered. But since lawyers put so much stock in the template library, they don’t make these templates available to anyone; they are kept under lock and key.

But the public wants templates!

Just because lawyers keep their templates under lock and key isn’t going to stop the public wanting them. So, non-lawyers have come up with the idea of selling templates on the internet very cheaply. This annoys lawyers because they perceive it devalues their profession (and at $30 a download they are probably right). But remember that the value to the client is tailoring the template to suit the client’s specific needs. If the client tries to tailor the document herself and gets it wrong, the damage could run into $1000s. 

Admittedly some documents, for example employment agreements, are easier to tailor than others (although I have seen plenty of employers come unstuck with restraint of trade clauses). But other documents require much care, skill and experience to get right.

Now, your ‘non-lawyer internet download retailer’ doesn’t care whether you stuff it up and isn’t going to help you get it right; that’s not part of the service. Everything you download is at your own risk.

So where does this leave the business owner who needs that legal document?

Welcome to the future of legal services

This problem will only be solved when the legal profession makes this mental shift and unlocks its template libraries to the general public. Then the client can buy a template from a lawyer, have a go at tailoring it for their needs, and then get the lawyer to check it and make any final amendments to make sure the client hasn’t made any fatal errors. Such an approach saves the lawyer time and the client cost; it represents a middle ground between the ridiculously cheap $30 download, with all its inherent dangers, and the fully lawyer tailored document which costs $1000s.

Now for some good news and for some bad news

Bad news first: any wide-scale change of this nature by the legal profession will be a long time coming. That’s because the legal fraternity is stuck in the old mindset and hates change. But the good news is that there is a lawyer website which is doing this already by offering an online library of legal templates, plus a follow-up service where you can get a real lawyer to check over any documents you put together using a template from the library. I will leave you to guess which website this is and to find the Secret Library for yourself.

By Michael Smyth