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Executive officers of unlicensed software companies LegalZoom and AVVO have infuriated lawyers in presentations at bar association meetings over the past couple of years. The presenters claimed that their technology allows them to provide unlicensed legal services to consumers faster and less expensively than consumers can obtain those services from lawyers. Those claims may be true with respect to complacent lawyers that have neglected their professional responsibilities, but software companies cannot compete with craftsmen lawyers.

The world marketplace increasingly demands fast, inexpensive, and disposable products. Fast and cheap products are great if they are simple, indistinguishable commodities. Let’s face it, most of us cannot taste the difference between competing brands of skim milk, so it why should we pay more for one skim milk product than another.

Professional services require practitioners to exercise “professional discretion” in the performance of their craft. Professional discretion distinguishes professional services from commodities, because professional service practitioners must develop sufficient knowledge and experience to know whether, when, why, and how to provide services in various circumstances.

Consider, for example, a consumer that wants to acquire a revocable trust, commonly known as a “living trust.” A software company customer could probably purchase a revocable trust form for a lower cost than the fee of an experienced estate planning lawyer. However, the customer would end up with a worthless pile of paper if the consumer’s primary estate planning objective is to protect assets from the cost of long-term care, because a revocable trust cannot achieve most long-term care asset protection objectives. Professional discretion about which estate planning tool accomplishes a particular objective in today’s rapidly changing legal environment is the valuable service that distinguishes a craftsman lawyer from an unlicensed software company that sells fast and cheap “legal” forms.

The bar imposes strict ethical obligations upon lawyers to protect citizens from fraud and deception, and promote public access to justice. Lawyers must attend continuing education training to maintain their knowledge of new laws and legal procedures. Lawyers must protect client confidentiality and they are prohibited from involvement in activities that conflict with their clients’ interests. The law also requires lawyers to stand by their work and compensate clients for losses caused by inadequate or defective legal services.

Customers that buy products from an unlicensed software company like have no way of knowing whether there inexpensive purchases are appropriate or effective. The software company is happy to sell whatever form the customer may order, but the company cannot monitor changing laws and economic conditions sufficiently to tell the customer that the customer really needs an entirely different document or service.

Unlike lawyers that must guarantee their work, these unlicensed software companies load the “Terms of Use” pages of their websites with warranty disclaimers to protect them from all possible liability for harm caused by their inadequate or inappropriate products. Their customers generally do not discover that their “bargain” purchases will leave them stranded until they need their inadequate or inappropriate documents to achieve objectives for which the documents were never intended. The finally customers only experience the full scope of loss when the reality of missed opportunity evaporates their false confidence in their worthless documents.

People can avoid unnecessary grief when they seek legal services by engaging true legal professionals. A software company can sell almost any form, but only a reputable, duly licensed lawyer can determine which legal services best satisfy a client’s objectives. No software company can match a lawyer’s professionalism and professional discretion. When it comes to legal services, there is no substitute for a lawyer.

Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator, a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Indiana Bar Foundation;  a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Indiana Association of Mediators; and he was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.

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