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Online Legal Self-Help Gives Lawyers Headaches

But Some Clients Find Useful Info For Cases

From – Missouri Lawyers Weekly

March 20, 2000

The online revolution is transforming the way clients approach their legal problems, Missouri attorneys say.

On the down side, the Internet makes it more tempting than ever for lay people to try legal self-help by making use of the inexhaustible supply of free legal forms, statutes, case law and other information to be found there.

But more positively, experts say the Internet allows clients new ways to make a contribution to their cases as “part of the team” by doing non-legal research, providing medical information, and finding experts and witnesses.

“I’d say that it happens at least once every two weeks that a client comes to me with something that came from the Internet,” said Luanne F. Kurth of Kansas City. “It’s happening more and more.

“Some of the time, the information isn’t very helpful and doesn’t apply to their case. But in other instances, they’ve come up with information that has really helped their cases, things I wouldn’t have been able to find.

“And I think if attorneys think the Internet isn’t influencing their clients – what they know and what they think about the case – it’s because the attorneys aren’t asking.”

Your Name Here

Attorneys say a variety of legal instruments can be downloaded from the internet, especially in the areas of estate planning and family practice. And they have many stories of document-toting clients:

Besides forms, clients also use the Internet to find statutes and follow the course of cases. One of Hoop’s clients, a man from Idaho embroiled in a dispute in Missouri, used the Internet to look up statutes bearing on the jurisdictional issues in the case. He then sent the statutes to Hoop.

Virginia G. Rice, who practices elder law in St. Louis, also has clients who have done research on statutes.

A Fool For A Client 

But lawyers take a generally dim view of the results of legal self-help, even when aided by the power of the Internet.

Readey said that his client’s case was a good example of the problems that can arise when a non-lawyer tries to use a canned form from the Internet.

“This was a pretty smart, successful guy who knew that he should do something to protect his money and cut down on estate taxes,” said Readey. “So he decided to set up a trust to get around probate.

“And then, to save some money, he thought he’d just take a trust from the Net and set it up himself.

“But the trust he took was inappropriate to his situation – it wouldn’t even have taken advantage of the unified credit available for both spouses.”

Kurth’s client was trying to get a child support order against him stopped after he assumed custody of the children. “He first went to the Division of Child Support,” she said. “And when they told him he needed to get the court order changed, he went to the Internet for the form and tried to do it himself.

“Eventually a judge told him what he had done wasn’t correct, and encouraged him to get a lawyer involved.”

Kurth also represented a non-custodial parent in a case that “blew up” after the custodial parent tried to engage in legal self-help.

“The other party wanted to move,” explained Kurth. “So she got the relocation statute off the Internet and tried to use it to write a letter informing my client of what she wanted to do.

“The problem was, she forgot to include several things, and then just moved.

“And then all hell broke loose.”

In Dorshorst’s divorce case, the documents downloaded by the husband did not contemplate many important “what-ifs” related to the sale of the couple’s house. “The way that the husband had written up these documents, they were looking at an open-ended situation with the house that could have been a real problem,” he said. “They were just assuming it was going to sell at a price that they both could agree upon – they didn’t consider that it might not sell, or not for a long time, and they didn’t name a figure that they’d be bound to accept, and so forth.

“The husband was one of those people who thinks he smarter than lawyers, and that lawyers are a waste of money. And even though we were able to handle it without great expense, I don’t think the experience changed his mind.”

As for statutory research by clients, most attorneys said it wasn’t very helpful. “In the instances where it has come up, the statutes my clients looked up were statutes I was already very familiar with,” said Rice.

Paul J. Stingley of Fulton was more blunt. “I’ve had some clients who’ve looked up a bunch of statutes they think have something to do with their case,” he said. “And then I had to spend two hours explaining to them why they don’t apply.”

Kurth noted that “there’s an amazing amount of legal information out there, but much of it comes without the qualifiers that it may not apply in your state, or your county, or before your judge.

“Some lay people have the idea that just because a site was done by an attorney or sounds like it was, then it must be right and it must apply.”

Child Support Worksheets

Attorneys are less uniformly critical when it comes to Internet sites providing help with the Missouri child support forms.

“A lot of my clients have come in with child support worksheets they have done with Internet programs,” said Hoop. “And most of them have been pretty accurate, from what I’ve seen.”

David P. Kimminau of Kansas City said that some of his “more sophisticated” clients had tried to calculate what they owed in child support using Internet sites before seeing him, but noted that most of them missed important nuances. “For example, they don’t know that they’re not entitled to the visitation credit if the original judgment was entered before October 1998,” he explained. “Or if the other party has overtime and bonuses as part of their gross income, that doesn’t get handled right.”

Stingley pointed out that deciding how to fill out the child support worksheets is more art than science, and very risky for the layperson.

“It looks like a calculation, but so much of Form 14 can be manipulated,” he said.

“It becomes a question of whether something should be included on the form or, not. It would be risky at best to rely on something you did yourself.”

But Kimminau also argued that there was a benefit to the child support Web sites even if the calculations performed there by lay people were not entirely accurate.

“I think these sites are useful in helping clients get the general idea of what they should be paying,” he said. “Especially in modification situations, it could help someone figure out if they even needed an attorney by letting them compare what they are currently paying in child support to what the site says they should be paying.

“If those numbers were far apart, it might be time to go see an attorney.”

Other Infonnation

In addition to downloading legal forms from Internet sites, clients are also able to get other kinds of information on their cases from the Net, say practitioners.

Several attorneys noted that many clients get involved with Internet chat rooms organized around legal issues.

“I’ve had many clients who gotten information from this or that chat room,” said Mardi J. Montello of St. Louis. “And some of these chat rooms and sites can be pretty wild, with people cutting down the law or the process, saying the tax code is unconstitutional and things like that.

“When a client goes off in that direction, you have to slow them down sometimes, remind them that not everything they read on the Internet is gospel.”

Carson pointed out that clients can be difficult to work with when they rely too much on the Internet for their understanding of a case. “I had a client, a lesbian non-biological mother seeking joint custody, who was able to find a lot of information on the Internet,” said Carson. “She found cases from around the country and statutes from other states, and got involved in chat rooms.”

But Carson noted that the overall effect of the client’s involvement with the Internet was destructive. “There was too much information coming at her from too many people,” said Carson. “It raised her anxiety level.”

Eventually, Carson had to tell the client to find a new attorney. “I ended up firing her,” she said. “She was a good person, and very cooperative at first, but I began to realize that she was getting her information from somewhere else – it was clear to me I had lost control of the case.”

But in other situations, Internet research can make clients better able to take advantage of their attorney’s expertise.

Michael L. Kahn of Overland Park, an estate planning attorney, said that an increasing number of his clients want to take a hands-on role in developing their estate plans. “People want to be informed about estate planning, and many are able to get a pretty sophisticated understanding of estate planning techniques by research on the Web,” he said. “They try to be as well informed as possible before a meeting with me – and that allows us to skip to a more advanced level of discussion.

“And it also allows them to eliminate some options more or less from the start – which can shorten the discussion.”

Clients are also able to make a valuable contribution to their cases by doing research on non-legal matters, explained Kurth. “I’ve had clients who are very good at doing research on the Internet who have found things that I never would have found,” she said.  “They’ve found things that we’ve used at trial – like a client in a case involving domestic violence who found out the boyfriend had had charges filed against him before, in other cities he’d lived in.

Kurth has also had clients find experts in unusual areas, such as sex abuse and lie detector tests.

Carson was able to use the Internet to ease the concerns of one of her clients about a case. “One client from Nashville became very concerned that it was much more expensive to live there than in Missouri, and wanted to file a motion to modify,” she said. “So I sent him to the Net to check into the differences in prices and so forth, and he was able to see that the cost of living was just about the same.”

Rice, an elder law attorney, noted that the family members of her clients provide her with extensive medical information from the Internet that can be helpful. “When I look at a situation involving an elderly client, I need to understand the likely progression of an illness in order to pay the cost of the case,” she said. “And you can always use more and more recent information on issues like that.”

She also noted that the family members are yearning to find ways to help out. “Dealing with an incapacitated older person with a serious illness can be devastating for a family,” she said. “They talk to all of these people – attorneys, social workers, estate planners – and they want to do more than just sit there listening. They want to make a contribution.

“Doing this kind of research, providing this information, can be very helpful.”

Carson has also observed that clients who use the Internet to provide useful information for their cases find it to be “empowering.”

“Clients feel better when they are helping,” she said. “They want to be a part of the team.”