This summer while visiting my family, I reconnected with a good friend–a former mentor and teacher from middle school. We had coffee, reminisced, shared stories, hugged. A couple of weeks later, she emailed.
“I have a legal query for you and hope I am not out of line asking you this,” it began. “I have been thinking about putting together a will and have done some initial searching online to see if I can do this on my own. First question is this: am I crazy to try to do this without a lawyer’s assistance? Second question: if you think it’s a doable DIY personal project, does this website look as good to you as it does to me?”
She included a link, then added, “Thank you in advance for your kind response. And please know that if I AM so incredibly out of line asking you about making a will, you just have to say so and I will understand and never do it again.”
I began mentally composing the reply: Of course it’s not a problem. I get this question all the time. You’re not crazy… and then I paused. This is someone I met when I was 10. Outside of family there are few people who have known me longer, or better. And I wondered:
What does it say that someone who knows me that well would hesitate to ask me a legal question? Are lawyers that scary?
Apparently so. Research suggests that a major reason people hesitate to call lawyers is fear–fear of being embarrassed, of being rejected, of losing control, of making things worse, of being stuck with a running meter and an unpayable bill. Compared to that, DIY seems safe and simple. What could be more straightforward than searching online for the solution to your problem? My friend seemed less concerned about drafting a will using an online form than about imposing on me. Which means she’s polite (of course), but also says a lot about how accessible lawyers seem to be, even to our friends.
Part of the value added by lawyers is that we can plug you into the living, breathing law. For example, you might have heard about recent changes to the tax law. Well, lawyers everywhere are retooling their advice based on what has happened. We’re human beings; not only can we do that, but we’re required to do that in order to be competent at our jobs. We keep up with the legal context so you don’t have to. Online forms? Not so much.
Don’t know what questions to ask? We do. For example:
• We know that every written legal document (including wills) is interpreted according to some law. Which law? You have a choice: you can either specify the law in the document, or you can let a court decide later. Not every part of a form will work in every state. (That’s one reason lawyers are licensed by individual states, and limit their advice to the law of the states where they’re licensed).
• We can “spot issues” and give you a sense of whether your situation is simple or complicated. In the first year of law school we’re trained in a mysterious art: we’re told facts about a situation that appears to be simple, and our mission is to spot all the things about it that could make it more complicated. This gives us a well-deserved reputation for making things complicated, but don’t let that intimidate you. Sometimes things are more complicated than they appear at first—and it is always better to know that before you make a decision, not after. And sometimes things are more straightforward to us than they may appear to you, just because it’s what we do for a living and we’ve seen it before.
• We can point out red flags as well. Do you want to do something that the law won’t allow? We can tell you. Will the agreement you have in mind accomplish the result you seek? We will have an opinion. What will happen if members of your family don’t like your estate plan? We can run through scenarios and options. That’s what we do.
Back to my friend. I responded to her email with my thoughts, which boiled down to: you don’t have to choose between forms and lawyers. It’s okay to use both. If you want to get your thoughts on paper, use the form. Fill it out, get your wishes clear in your mind, and jot down questions. Then—if you want to be sure things will actually go the way you’d like them to go—visit a lawyer and run your form and your questions by someone whose business it is to make sure things turn out as planned. Ask for an estimate or quote: you may be surprised to learn that the lawyer can give you a form plus advice at a lower price than you’d expect.
I told her an uncomfortable truth: that, even though I’m a lawyer and I read a lot of wills as part of my job, I would not draft my own, because they’re more complicated than they look, and your mileage may vary dramatically from state to state. (I also had to admit that, although I had someone in mind to draft one for me, I hadn’t gotten around to it either.)
Bottom line? It’s okay to ask. Lawyers are paid to answer questions, but it’s on us to point out the boundary between just talking and paid consultation. If we can’t help, we may know someone who can. And for those readers with a law degree: remember how hard it is for people to connect with lawyers they can trust. Take a moment to answer questions, make referrals, and remind the public that lawyers are not as scary as all that.