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A Great Pro Se Idea

by Carolyn Elefant on December 28, 2005 · 10 comments

in Business Models, Law Practice Management

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This article from the Sacramento Bee (12/26/05) reports on a new service by Legal Zoom:  online preparation of a small claims case.  According to the article, for $99.00, the company will draft up a small claims complaint based on an online questionnaire and for $60 more, will serve the defendant as well.

So why would an attorney support this service?  Because, I sometimes get calls from clients who want to sue for a small home improvement matter or wages owed and from an economic perspective, it’s not worth it for them to have to pay even $300 (which is two hours of almost any attorney’s time) to recover maybe $800.  But they might be willing to pay $150 to bring the suit themselves and not have to wrestle with legal forms and figuring out service of process.

Of course, that’s not to say that services like Legal Zoom should only
be provided by non-attorneys.  Is there some way that you can make this
concept work for your firm?  Can you use small claims cases as a loss
leader or as cases that law clerks can handle?  My feeling is that if
someone is able to make money off low end legal services, why shouldn’t
it just as well be us attorneys?

  • will

    I too like this idea, as I get alot of calls from folks who have a case, but the value of which does not merit paying a lawyer.

  • will

    I too like this idea, as I get alot of calls from folks who have a case, but the value of which does not merit paying a lawyer.

  • Mike Adams

    Interesting, but I would also note that Legal Zoom’s small claims service varies by state. For Colorado the company simply offers form preparation for $69.00, but filing and serving is still left to the plaintiff.

  • Mike Adams

    Interesting, but I would also note that Legal Zoom’s small claims service varies by state. For Colorado the company simply offers form preparation for $69.00, but filing and serving is still left to the plaintiff.

  • http://broileslaw.com Greg Broiles

    I don’t know how they do with small claims complaints, but their drafting/interviewing skills for California estate plans suck.
    As an experiment, I paid them $200 for a CA living trust. They are based in CA and the founders are licensed CA attorneys, so I figured there’d be a good chance they’d generate something “good enough”, even if it didn’t have all of the bells and whistles you’d expect from a real estate planner.
    Bzzt. The estate plan they produced was fatally flawed and pretty much certain to produce either a wildly inequitable result or years of litigation, and it’s very unlikely the resulting distribution of property would look like what I told them I wanted.
    I am in the process of writing up a detailed critique, but my experience with them has left me with the impression that California residents would be better off dying intestate than with Legal Zoom estate planning – at least with intestate rules, the results are clear and probably not too different from what people would’ve intended.

  • http://broileslaw.com Greg Broiles

    I don’t know how they do with small claims complaints, but their drafting/interviewing skills for California estate plans suck.
    As an experiment, I paid them $200 for a CA living trust. They are based in CA and the founders are licensed CA attorneys, so I figured there’d be a good chance they’d generate something “good enough”, even if it didn’t have all of the bells and whistles you’d expect from a real estate planner.
    Bzzt. The estate plan they produced was fatally flawed and pretty much certain to produce either a wildly inequitable result or years of litigation, and it’s very unlikely the resulting distribution of property would look like what I told them I wanted.
    I am in the process of writing up a detailed critique, but my experience with them has left me with the impression that California residents would be better off dying intestate than with Legal Zoom estate planning – at least with intestate rules, the results are clear and probably not too different from what people would’ve intended.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    With regard to Greg’s comments, I consider small claims cases an entirely different ball of wax than estate planning. First of all, almost no attorney, except a relative or friend, would take a small claims case valued under $2500. It’s simply not worth it as an economic matter, either to the lawyer or client. Second, small claims court is very pro se friendly and the court is forgiving of deviation from rules of pleading and evidence. So as long as you have a service that will do no worse than what a pro se would do himself, it seems to make sense.
    Wills and estates are different. First of all, if a pro se screws up a will, he won’t get any special dispensation from the court. Second, estate planning is very complex and requires expertise, whereas small claims filings often do not. Finally, by their nature, small claims cases are small potatos – with jurisdictional limits of $2500 to $5000. So even if Legal Zoom screws up, it’s not tragic. That is not the case with estates which may be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    With regard to Greg’s comments, I consider small claims cases an entirely different ball of wax than estate planning. First of all, almost no attorney, except a relative or friend, would take a small claims case valued under $2500. It’s simply not worth it as an economic matter, either to the lawyer or client. Second, small claims court is very pro se friendly and the court is forgiving of deviation from rules of pleading and evidence. So as long as you have a service that will do no worse than what a pro se would do himself, it seems to make sense.
    Wills and estates are different. First of all, if a pro se screws up a will, he won’t get any special dispensation from the court. Second, estate planning is very complex and requires expertise, whereas small claims filings often do not. Finally, by their nature, small claims cases are small potatos – with jurisdictional limits of $2500 to $5000. So even if Legal Zoom screws up, it’s not tragic. That is not the case with estates which may be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  • Laura

    And then again, maybe not so great. Some states (CA for example) have in some counties Small Claims Legal Advisors who charge nothing. Some also have lots of information on their small claims courts web sites, including forms and instructions. There are also books on filing small claims actions (Nolo and HALT come to mind). I’m the last person to say our legal system works for the average person, let alone those of very limited means. But there’s also that “teachable moment” issue. Most small claims courts assume the person is pro se (in fact require it). Is it a bad thing for people to do this themselves? Is it a bad thing for people to learn about taking affirmative action in their own legal system about which they know little but just enough to complain? Is it a bad thing for them to learn how to speak out if the system is broken?

  • Laura

    And then again, maybe not so great. Some states (CA for example) have in some counties Small Claims Legal Advisors who charge nothing. Some also have lots of information on their small claims courts web sites, including forms and instructions. There are also books on filing small claims actions (Nolo and HALT come to mind). I’m the last person to say our legal system works for the average person, let alone those of very limited means. But there’s also that “teachable moment” issue. Most small claims courts assume the person is pro se (in fact require it). Is it a bad thing for people to do this themselves? Is it a bad thing for people to learn about taking affirmative action in their own legal system about which they know little but just enough to complain? Is it a bad thing for them to learn how to speak out if the system is broken?

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