The trouble with lawyers

The legal boys have won again
And you and I have lost
They can’t tell us how it happened
But they’ll let us know the cost

Elton John – Legal Boys

When our Last Will and Testament service is complimented for its convenience and affordability I feel a sense of pride, but I have to quickly follow up by explaining that our service is not only used by people who “cannot afford expensive legal fees”. It turns out that there is also a growing band of users who turn to our service because they simply don’t want to use a lawyer; they don’t like lawyers, and they don’t trust lawyers to give them a fair deal. The decision to use our service is not about cost; these people could afford to use a lawyer if they wanted to, and they could probably find the time to book an appointment, but it’s a general dislike of the profession. Of course, at LegalWills, we value the expertise of the legal network, and we often direct people to receive professional advice if their situation warrants it, but what is it with this distrust of lawyers? It seems that the legal profession need a PR makeover.

 

I was reminded of this recently when reading an article on the Canadian CBC website about the disgraced lawyer, Richard Chojnacki, who stole from his clients. The Law Society knew about it for six years, but did nothing. They have been accused of protecting one of their own, even as people were being robbed of their savings. Many lives were ruined unnecessarily as the Law Society sat on their hands, causing “6 years of hurt”. But the story wasn’t the main interest to me, rather it was the comments section. It reflects a public discontent with the legal profession;

“lawyers who are obviously accustomed to dragging things out for billing purposes”
“There is a reason why lawyers have a bad reputation and are hated”
“Who would have thought — a dishonest lawyer?”
“It is said that sharks will not eat lawyers as a professional courtesy”
“99% of all lawyers make the rest of them look bad”
“a lawyer who is dishonest and corrupt. Shocking!!!!”

The list of comments goes on. In fact, when I quickly looked up the list of the ten most distrusted professions, lawyers were sixth on the list, just behind psychics and ahead of car mechanics. There are also countless websites dedicated to “lawyer jokes” reinforcing that perception.

I am sure it was this story that prompted the Toronto Star to start its “Broken Trust” series of investigations into lawyers-turned-criminals, the headline of which is “The Toronto Star found that more than 230 lawyers sanctioned for criminal-like activity by the Law Society of Upper Canada in the last decade, stole, defrauded or diverted some $61 million held in trust funds for clients.”

I’m not sure that lawyers are any more dishonest than any other profession, maybe we hold lawyers to a higher standard because we trust them with our most personal affairs. However, there is certainly a justified perception that some lawyers will try to make as much money as a situation permits, and charge for every possible item. You only have to look at the Nortel bankruptcy in Canada where the legal arguments over how to split $7B in assets have moved the case no closer to a resolution than it was 5 years ago. It’s just the the $7B is much smaller now because $1.2 BILLION has been eaten away in legal fees. Just imagine how that kind of legal bill can be amassed; either a huge number of lawyers, or an unconscionable hourly rate.

I’m not sure when this distrust of the profession started, but in 1852 Charles Dickens published Bleak House, the story of a dispute over a Will which culminates in the estate being swallowed completely in legal fees. The inspiration for the story came from Dickens’ disillusionment of the legal community after working both within the system as a law clerk, and then working with lawyers to protect copyright of his work.

People come to us because they have been quoted as much as $1,200 for a “simple” estate plan. Other clients have come to us because some lawyers refuse to provide a quote claiming that it is impossible to say how much a Will is going to cost until is has been completed. These attitudes put people off, and that is why they are turning to services like LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. We can at least tell you that a Will costs $34.95 or £24.95, and we’ve paid the expensive lawyers to create the service so that you don’t have to.

Although our service works for the vast majority of people, some people still need legal advice to create their estate plan. We will always direct people to professionals when our service is not appropriate for their situation. I just wish the legal profession did a better job of presenting themselves to the public.

 

The scourge of the online Will kit

Here’s the problem; everybody needs a Will, but lawyers are too expensive and inconvenient. As a result 65 percent of people don’t have a Will. To address this issue, countless “downloadable Will forms” proliferate across the internet. People use these forms and their loved ones end up with a mountain of trouble.

Let’s explore the evidence;

Are lawyers really too expensive or inconvenient? According to the customers who come to LegalWills, yes, absolutely. They are being quoted anything up to $1200 or £800 for a simple Last Will and Testament, but more commonly it is in the region of $600 or £400. The more significant problem is that updates are being charged anything up to $100 or £50 per change. There is also a gap between what lawyers think people can pay, and what people are prepared to pay. I read this recently on a legal blog, written by an estate planning lawyer

At least once a week I get a call from a potential client. The question is always the same: “How much does X document cost?” This is always a perplexing question. Usually the answer is “I don’t know.”

I know of an attorney who agrees to quote the client a price over the phone if they can answer one simple question: “What color tie am I wearing today?” …This lawyer knows that people will protest- “how can I know what color tie you are wearing if I am not there?” The lawyer then points out (if the client has not gotten it already) that both questions are similar.

So here’s the disconnect; the lawyer thinks he is clever and the client is a bit dim. The prospective client on the other hand wants to know whether they should include in their household budget some money to prepare a Last Will and Testament. In order to do this, they need to get a feel for how much it will cost. I cannot think of any other situation where you would blindly procure a service, hand over your wallet and ask the service provider to charge you whatever they want (veterinarians and dentists aside!).

So most people end up without a Last Will and Testament in place, and of those that do, most are not kept up to date. So we find service providers offering a “downloadable Will” sometimes free of charge. I saw a new one just last week – I have embedded a screenshot of the body of it here. Last Will and TestamentThey have tried to convey some authenticity with some calligraphy at the top and an impenetrable legal sentence to kick off the document

 

I JOHN DOE KNOW ALL PERSONS BY THESE PRESENTS:

 

But the meat of the document comes in article IV, where you are given space to explain how you would like your estate to be distributed. Personally, I feel that this document should be illegal; it is preying on people who don’t want to pay for legal advice and who are trusting this company to provide them with a legally binding document. But it is nothing short of impossible to complete a satisfactory Will using a blank page like this. You need to create alternate plans, trusts, Executor powers, residual plans and without these you end up with an estate like Ann Aldrich who used E-Z Legal Forms to prepare her Will. She listed out her possessions and instructed all of these things to go to her beneficiary. Unfortunately she didn’t explain what should happen to everything else. The result was a family battle over her estate and a judgement that included this warning “I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms”

Fortunately, there is a very large middle ground between expensive lawyers and dangerous blank forms, and this is being filled by interactive services like the ones at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. These services guide you through the process with a series of questions, and then verifies that you have covered all scenarios. It only allows you to do things that your jurisdiction permits, and double checks for things like minor children having guardians and trusts set up appropriately. Clearly some people still need expensive legal advice and custom clauses to be written, but services like this work for the vast majority. So much so, that when a recent study from Oxford University listed the most likely jobs to be replaced by technology, paralegals were 4th on the list with a 94% probability of being replaced by software. Most people who have a Will written by a legal professional have their information typed into software and their Will generated from templates (the staff in the office usually do it), but online services like LegalWills are granting access to those tools directly to the consumer.

People are not likely to use a lawyer who refuses to tell them how much they will charge. But we are hoping that we can steer people away from blank form kits.

 

You may not need legal advice to write a Will

I received an interesting comment from somebody recently;

“I learned of a woman who did a Will through this process but was not advised about how to care for her disabled child when she passed. No Hensen trust was set up for the child. In my personal and professional experience, a person should receive legal advice when preparing a Will”

This comment actually makes no sense. We would agree that this particular person should have received legal advice in preparing their Will. In fact, one of the questions we ask up-front is whether there are special needs children to care for within the Will. If there are, then we would explain to that individual that our service is not a good fit for them, and that they should indeed seek legal advice. But does that therefore mean that everybody needs legal advice to write a Will? Of course not. The vast majority of the users of our service need a Will that leaves everything to their spouse, and if something were to happen to both parents, then the estate would be distributed between their children. Guardians should be named, and possibly trusts for minor beneficiaries. But a Will covering this situation is straightforward and can be written using our service in about 20 minutes. In fact, if you went to a legal professional to prepare this type of Will, you would be paying way more than you need to.

Of course there are are complicated family situations that would benefit from legal advice, but scaremongering everybody into paying for a lawyer leaves us with a situation where about 70% of adults do not have an up-to-date Will. The vast majority of those people could quite easily use our service to fit their estate planning needs.

But the counter argument would be “ahhh, but how does a person know if they need legal advice or not?” At LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com we provide a list of circumstances under which we recommend that a person seek legal advice and not use our service. These include; planning to disinherit a spouse, a history of mental illness, children with special needs or if you think that there may be a challenge to the Will, or have any doubts whatsoever about your situation.

Our advice would be that although you may have heard of somebody needing legal advice to prepare their Will, you shouldn’t feel that this situation applies to you. And you shouldn’t let the thought of booking an appointment with a lawyer put you off preparing your Will. You can have a Will in your hands in about 20 minutes at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com

Fear and loathing of our Will service

There are generally two different reactions to our legal Will service and yesterday we experienced both. A lawyer tweeted yesterday about our service “Danger, Avoid”, and then an hour later somebody called into our customer service line and said “my mother had a Will written up when she was 85 and was charged $700, we have just re-done it using your service and it was almost verbatim compared to the $700 Will”. Let’s explore these two reactions.

The lawyer didn’t give too many details as to why our service was dangerous, or why it should be avoided, so we’ll have to make some assumptions. Let us assume that the lawyer felt that reducing the process of preparing a Will to a series of algorithms presented in a software package is an over-simplification – to some extent the lawyer may be correct. But what we do know is that it is actually quite unusual for a lawyer to hand-craft a new legal clause to go into a Will, most Wills drawn up by legal professionals are cut and pasted from known precedents. In fact, if you step into a lawyer’s office, you will be asked to complete a blank form, that is then punched into some software, and a Will is generated. In most cases the process is actually exactly the same as what we do. That is not to say that there can be fine-tuning of assets to lessen probate charges and tax liabilities, and more complex estates can benefit significantly from legal and financial advice to reduce the burden of those charges. But for many people the perceived advantage of this guidance is offset by the expense and inconvenience of seeking the advice.

Of course, if a special clause is required, or legal advice is needed, then we would always direct people to a legal professional, and under those circumstances, high legal fees may be warranted. However, in most cases, the process for creating a standard Will is actually far less complicated that filing one’s taxes, and I can imagine a decade or so ago, professional accountants having the same reaction to tax preparation software; “how can you reduce our expertise to a series of Q&A’s in software” but Intuit did it, and it has now become the go-to resource for most people. It is inevitable that more people will turn to software to prepare their Will given their experiences with dealing with legal professionals. And with that, let’s look at the other reaction.

Too often we hear of egregious over-charging by estate planning lawyers and this is ultimately what makes the service at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com so successful. We hear of people needing to change the name of their Executor on their existing Will, and being charged in excess of $500 to do this. We hear of 85 year old seniors, who simply want to leave everything to their daughter, being charged $700 for a simple Will.

I think it’s only fair to offer the other side to this discussion. Why would a lawyer charge $500 for what appears to be a minor update? The argument appears to be that the lawyer would effectively have to create a brand new Will because it is conceivable that laws or personal circumstances may have changed since the original Will was written. However, when the new Will looks identical to the original, people justifiably feel ripped off.

We are therefore left with a situation where 60-70% of people do not have a Will, and of those that do, most are not kept up to date. It is a document that everybody should have, so we clearly have a broken system.

We believe that our service currently addresses the needs of about 70% of the people needing a Will. It would be relatively straightforward to build software that could address the needs of 99 percent of the people needing a Will. There will of course still be a need for legal advice from trained professionals, and the hand-crafting of novel and unique legal clauses. But we do feel that the days of charging $600-$900 for a standard Will are thankfully drawing to a close.

For every complaint from the legal profession, we receive fifty thank-you’s from people who have used the services at www.legalwills.ca, www.legalwills.co.uk and www.uslegalwills.com. We feel that we offer a vital service and that for the vast majority of people, the end product of our service is every bit as good as a Will drawn up by a legal professional.

The high cost of law

My situation is simple, but I know I need a Will. I just phoned a lawyer and they said it would cost $900. I’m a senior, I can’t afford that

We received this call into our customer service group yesterday and it got me thinking about the true cost of the law. Why would a lawyer feel that an appropriate charge for a Will in this situation would be $900? after all, they will almost certainly put some basic information into a software package and generate a simple Will for an individual. They might even try and persuade the senior to name the law firm as the Executor of the Will.

What is a person supposed to do if they can’t afford $900?

Every jurisdiction has seen cuts in affordable law. In Canada the The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C., Chief Justice of Canada has been a tireless campaigner of affordable law, claiming that the legal system has failed the middle classes by over-charging for simple services. We have recently seen protests in the UK over the plans to cut £220M from legal aid. The protests were made up primarily of our most vulnerable in society. In the US Jim Silkenat, who has just been elected president of the American Bar Association (ABA), warned that there is an enormous unmet legal need among those who cannot afford it, even though there are well over 1 Million lawyers in the US !! Unfortunately, no lawyer in the US is required to offer affordable or pro-bono work.

So the top lawyers in the countries serviced by LegalWills all agree that their legal system is broken. And I would say that trying to charge $900 to write a Will for a senior is symptomatic not only of a broken legal system, but also of a sense of entitlement felt by many people serving in the legal profession. That’s how we end up with situations like this one where “A solicitor has been jailed for stealing more than £200,000 from clients including one who had received compensation for brain damage…..and spent money on luxury cars and cosmetic surgery for his partner.”

This is why so many people are turning to services like those offered by LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. For $34.95 in the US and Canada and £24.95 in the UK, you can create your Will in about 20 minutes; using the same software that will probably be used by the lawyers charging hundreds. But with the added advantages of unlimited updates, convenience, and the chance to learn a little bit about the process while you are creating your Will, so you will really understand the contents.

Everybody needs a Will, and it should never be made unaffordable. That’s just not fair.

The “armchair principle” in Will writing

I recently read this article from the BBC talking about the importance of being clear in one’s Will. Ambiguous wording in a recent Will resulted in a £500k legacy going to the government. The article also took the opportunity to try and draw a line between this situation and the dangers of preparing one’s own Will. There wasn’t any indication that the mis-directed bequest came from a do-it-yourself Will, but these unfortunate situations somehow are used as examples of why you need to pay high fees for a legal professional.

Specifically, and it is important to be specific, this article warns people with;

Strict rules governing the way a will is made and executed mean that errors can be made very easily which can invalidate it. These errors often include not signing the will or having it witnessed correctly.

This does seem to be the most used scare tactic; pay for a legal professional or your Will may be invalidated. Let me shed some light on these strict rules; the Will must be signed at the end, and the signing needs to be witnessed by two people with no vested interest in the contents of the Will. This includes beneficiaries or the spouse of a beneficiary. It is also a good idea for you and your witnesses to initial each page. There. That’s it.

This article also makes reference to “the armchair principle” that exists in the UK, and it being adopted by many Canadian Provinces. In essence it means that your Will is not going to be invalidated because of a technical error. Every effort will be made to understand the intention of the person writing the Will. For example if somebody wrote “my sitter, Jane Doe”, but meant “my sister, Jane Doe”, the chances are the courts will say “he doesn’t have a sitter, it wouldn’t make sense for him to leave his entire estate to his sitter, he obviously means his sister, the one named Jane Doe”.

It is important to be clear and unambiguous with instructions. Obviously it doesn’t make sense to leave your entire estate to “my friend John” without being specific about who you mean, but with a little common sense, anybody can prepare their own Will.

Services like those at LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk take care of the legal clauses and jargon, and also protect against doing anything you can’t legally do in your jurisdiction. There is really no need to be fearful of preparing your own Will, and these “strict rules” that the lawyers warn us of, are actually very simple.

Why can’t most people afford a Will?

We know that every adult should have a Will. There is never an appropriate situation to die intestate; it leaves a mess for your loved ones, and key appointments like those of the Trustee or the guardians for children are left up to the courts. However, lawyers continue to charge several hundreds of dollars or pounds to prepare what is often a very simple document.

Canada’s top judge once again berated the legal profession for making themselves inaccessible to the majority of citizens. It’s nothing new, she said the same thing a year and a half ago. She made the point that writing a Will is a basic right, and everybody needs one, but how many people can afford $600, and why would a lawyer charge this much for a Will that could be generated by an intern by using Will creation software.

If we look at the average pay of “the 90%”, in the US, they are making about $36k a year. After paying bills, it doesn’t leave much for a discretionary spend of $600 for a Will. Particularly, if the Will might only have a useful lifespan of a few months or a year. Does this mean that 90% of the population have to just do without?

One of the comments under this article summed it up beautifully

When you have to work a week to pay one hour of legal fees, the system is broken.

Other options are available, like the blank form Will kit, but as we’ve written in the past, they are terrible, and it’s not fair that people on a tight budget should have to make do with a solution that is inherently problematic.

Yesterday we received a wonderful letter from a customer;

I have just completed an on-line Will for my 82 year old mother-in-law who is about to have a hip replacement operation, not serious but made her think about her Will. She has no property and her estate is worth less that £10,000 enough for her funeral and a few Premium bonds left to the children. She is currently living off a state pension so £200 solicitors fees for a Will would have meant hardship. Your software was easy to use and took up very little of my time.   The price of £25 was excellent value for money and affordable for a person on a state pension….You should be very proud of your Company and I wish you every success

We are indeed very proud of our company and what we are able to do. Through the services at LegalWills.caUSLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk we have been able to help tens of thousands of people prepare their own Will, every bit as solid as a Will created by a professional, but at an affordable price. We do feel that writing a high quality, legal Will is a basic human right and that legal professionals are too expensive for the vast majority. We also feel that lawyers and solicitors charge too much for what is often a very simple service.

Unfortunately today, this is a conversation you will rarely hear

Client: “I want a simple Will, everything I own to go to my spouse, and if something happens to both of us, to be shared equally between my two adult children”.
Lawyer: “You know, that will only take about 10 minutes, and I can get a legal clerk to put it together – let’s call it $25”.