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 cost of a Will – enter Walmart

In previous articles we have discussed the cost of a Will. How is it that we charge $34.95 or £24.95 when the exact same document created by a lawyer will cost anything up to $800 or £500? There are a variety of reasons for this; our costs are kept down because you are effectively writing the Will yourself, and the $800? well, that’s simply overcharging.Wal-mart

The line that is drawn between an online service like ours and going to a lawyer has now been blurred a little by two Canadian lawyers who have set up booths in Walmart. They are using software to create $99 Wills and they are trying to remove the intimidation factor out of Will writing by allowing you to simply walk in without an appointment and have your Will written for you. It’s a interesting approach because that’s exactly the same process by which the $800 Will is created; you provide some personal details and key decisions and the lawyer enters your details into some software and the Will is generated. In fact, this cut price approach is absolutely no different to any other lawyer, and the end result is no different to a Will written by any other lawyer, or a Will written using the service at LegalWills.ca. So why are they only charging $99? The Walmart lawyer explains

We don’t fault other lawyers. If we were doing two a week, we’d have to charge more

so let us understand this….the premium that somebody would pay to use a lawyer has no relationship with the quality of the end product, it’s simply because the lawyer has to charge more to sustain their business.

So what do other lawyers make of this; a well known legal blog said

While a Wal-Mart will may sound like a “good deal”, one-stop estate planning at Wal-Mart may prove to be problematic, should these wills be challenged at some point in the future. Only time will tell.

may prove problematic? what does that mean? These Wills are written by a law firm, why would they be problematic? My guess is that it would be absolutely no more problematic than any other Will that has been written either using a lawyer or a service like the one at LegalWills.ca. It sounds to me like some vague scaremongering.

There are however, a few inherent problems with a “walk-in” Will writing service. Most people do not know all of the answers to all of the questions without a little consideration. For example, naming an alternate Executor, bequests to charities, guardians for children. Some of these things take some real thought and are not answers that you would like to give on the fly.

The final question remains; is $99 a fair price? Well you could pay $99 and save hundreds of dollars, or you could just put your details into the software yourself and save yourself even more. LegalWills.ca allows you to do exactly that for $34.95, from the comfort of your own home. You can take as long as you like to get things precisely the way you want them to, and most importantly you can make updates whenever the need arises, by simply logging into your account, making the change and printing off a new Will. USLegalWills.com offers the same for $34.95 and LegalWills.co.uk is available for UK customers at £24.95.

The options are quite clear. The final document is exactly the same but you can pay a lawyer $600 to enter your information into the Will making software (they have an office to maintain), you can pay Walmart $99 to enter your information into the Will making software (they do thousands, so they can afford to be cheaper), or you can do it yourself for $34.95.

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

“How come your Wills are so cheap?”

This is one of the most common questions we are asked; “how is it that if I go to a professional Will writer – a solicitor or lawyer, they will charge me 20 times your price?”. How do we make your service so affordable?

I think the most important factor is our sense of value for money. All too often we see lawyers writing online about a professional estate plan costing “as little as $1,200”. Even the most conservative estimates are in the range of “only $400-600″. To us, that seems like an outrageous amount of money. We’ve seen articles, written by lawyers saying “If you’re using a will kit because you’re too cheap to pay for legal advice”, which I think really demonstrates the disconnect between those paying for the service and those offering the service. It’s not a matter of being too cheap, it’s a matter of simply not being able to afford it.

This is why the Chief Justice of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin noted, while addressing a room full of law students;

“the justice system…has failed thousands of Canadians who don’t have a legal will, simply because they do not have the money to hire a lawyer to draft one or are so afraid that what it will cost will bankrupt them”

We think it’s a disgrace that nearly three quarters of adults in the UK, US and Canada do not have a legal Will. This number should not be 70%, it should be nearer to 5%. It doesn’t make sense that a relatively simple document should be the exclusively the purview of legal professionals. Occasionally, a complex estate plan does require legal advice that draws upon the years of training and experience of a legal professional, but the legal profession know that no legal knowledge is required in the drafting of the vast majority of Wills. But this won’t stop them from scaremongering and sharing examples of how it can all go wrong. Take this example;

Many people unfortunately believe they can create their own will based on a legal (service) they located on the Web. These individuals need to realize that their estate probably does not simply consist of a bank account and a home. Many estates today could easily include additional real property (real estate), jewelry, a baseball card collection, first edition Nancy Drew books…

What on earth is this saying? how does a Will written by a legal professional for $600 cover these items any more thoroughly that an online service. In fact, we would argue that if you are including these items in your Will you SHOULD use an online service – it allows you to update your Will free of charge every time a change is made to your inventory. Otherwise you’ll be returning to the lawyer each time you buy a new first edition Nancy Drew book – the cost of an update – $500.

Writing the Will yourself can also protect you against immoral thieves like this woman.

The former solicitor and District Court judge, Heather Perrin, received her second jail sentence for deceiving her clients. Having been found guilty in November of tricking her elderly friend, Thomas Davis, into bequeathing half of his €1m estate to her two adult children, she pleaded guilty to falsifying another client’s account, for her own gain

Our services at LegalWills.ca, USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk allow you to write your own Will, from home, and guides you through the process. You learn about the contents of your Will, and the things to consider. You can update it at any time, and it will cost you $34.95 in the US or Canada, or £24.95 in the UK.

If it was up to us, the government would offer our website as a public service to ensure that everybody had a Will in place. In the meantime, we cover our costs and hope that we can make the process accessible to as many people as we can.

Can we trust professional advice on Will writing?

I couldn’t help but chuckle at a recent survey commissioned by the CIBC (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce).  The heading of the article was that “Surveys show that Canadians are unprepared with estate planning”. The reason according to the survey is that “84 per cent of Canadians with a will say they have named a family member or friend as executor, a move the bank says could be risky.”

The concern raised by CIBC’s Managing Director of estate planning is “”If you appoint a family member or friend without the appropriate experience or knowledge, it could cost your estate thousands of dollars, as well as months or even years of angst for your loved ones.”

In our opinion this is nothing more than a marketing promotion, thinly disguised as a news article. It doesn’t explain which circumstances lend themselves to naming a family member as an Executor, and more importantly, it doesn’t even mention the fees charged by professional estate planning services like those offered by CIBC. The CIBC representative is correct – if you do choose a family member as an Executor  it could cost your estate thousands of dollars. What he neglects to mention is that if you choose to name the CIBC as your Executor it is guaranteed to cost your estate thousands of dollars. There’s a reason why five of the top eight most profitable companies in Canada are banks.

Naming a family member as your Executor may in many cases be an extremely smart decision and it does not suggest that you or your family are unprepared. I personally had a relative lose his wife. She had a Will and he was the sole beneficiary. All that was required was for the accounts to be transferred solely into his name, and that taxes were filed. The solicitors who took care of this charged the estate £15,000. He was robbed, but like most professional services, their fees were based on a percentage of the value of the estate, not on the amount of time spent working.

Some estates are complicated and could probably benefit from professional Executor services, but don’t be influenced by surveys like this one from the CIBC. It can take time but having a family member take on the role of Executor of your estate could save your family thousands. There are also many resources available for all jurisdictions including Canada, the US and the UK.

We explained in a previous article that 19% of solicitors in England write themselves into Wills as the Executor because they know that this is the most lucrative part of the estate planning business.

At LegalWills.ca , USLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk we promote the idea of not being afraid of the law. Writing your Will and probating your Will are not activities that should be beyond the capabilities of the general public. Put simply, your Will allows you to describe how you would like your estate to be distributed, and the Executor then has a responsibility to carry out these instructions. Many professionals want you to believe that the process is way beyond the understanding of anybody but a trained individual. It is not, and you should not be intimidated into paying thousands of dollars for services that you don’t need.

Why do lawyers charge so much?

We get this question a lot at LegalWills. How is it that our service is available at a tiny fraction of the price of a lawyer or a solicitor? And the answer is not as straightforward as it may seem.

This article isn’t concerned with why lawyers make so much money in general. We know that lawyers make up nearly 10 percent of that top one percent club that incurred the wrath of the 99 percent in the last year or so. They sit just behind bankers in the list of most lucrative professions. We also know that some lawyers gladly bill themselves out at around $1250 an hour. But these are very qualified individuals who have skills and experience that most other lawyers do not have. No, this article is specifically concerning how a lawyer can charge so much for such a relatively simple task as preparing a Will.

The clear difference between a service like ours and a lawyers office is that we do not provide legal advice. If your situation is complicated and you need legal advice, then you should see a lawyer who can draw upon their years of experience and potentially craft some custom clauses in your Will to cover your unique situation. But the question is a more difficult one to answer for a more conventional family.

If for example you are married, you would want your spouse to be the main beneficiary and your children to share equally as alternate beneficiaries, then how can a lawyer charge so much? After all, they are going to use an automated software application to punch in a few details and it will generate your Will for you – in exactly the same way as our service. The end result will look exactly the same whether prepared by a lawyer, or prepared by yourself at LegalWills. In fact, many lawyers will charge ten times our prices for a “simple Will” with anything out of the ordinary incurring additional costs.

I did a little research online to answer the question; why does a lawyer charge so much to create a document that is so simple, that an office assistance is probably given the task of creating it. It’s a question that many people have asked, and Google pulled up millions of responses. The answers from the lawyers are quite revealing;

Our first answer from a lawyer in our internet search explains that “attorneys charge a lot because …They do not get to keep all that money and they are not constantly billing $400 every hour they are at work. They pay for secretaries, copiers, rent, suits, advertising” ahhh, so you are paying for the custom suits that a lawyer wants to wear. That goes some way to explaining how we are able to undercut them so dramatically. But more seriously, every business has overheads including copiers and advertising, so it still doesn’t explain why an hourly rate is so high.

The next common answer is that law school costs so much, that when you pay for your Will, you have to contribute to paying off some of that tuition. That seems to be an odd argument to us. I can understand that they may have incurred debts, but the cost of a Will should be in line with the value provided, not paying of a historical debt.

The question though is specific to the drawing up of Wills. In an interesting paper from Columbia law school, the author notes that

“The personal segment (of law practice) is populated by lawyers who graduate from lower-tier schools, charge lower fees and often flat fees set in apparently competitive fashion providing largely routine, non-contested legal services such as house closings, uncontested divorces and wills. Their work is perceived, by them and the rest of the profession, as low prestige.”

The work to prepare a Will for somebody is mundane, easy and only takes a few minutes for a simple situation.

The natural conclusion is that lawyers charge several hundred pounds or dollars to prepare a Will because…they can, and some people are prepared to pay. But increasingly people are starting to understand that this does not necessarily represent value for money and the fees are going to pay of tuition debt, pay for nice offices, and of course, those fancy suits. That is why people are turning to services like those at LegalWills.ca, LegalWills.co.uk and USLegalWills.com. The same end product can be created without paying for those overheads resulting in a dramatic cost saving.

I’ll leave the final word to the Chief Justice of Canada The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin who said

“Our justice system has, I believe, failed many middle class families. It has failed thousands of Canadians who don’t have a legal will, simply because they do not have the money to hire a lawyer to draft one or are so afraid that what it will cost will bankrupt them,”

Forbes dust off tired arguments against writing your own Will

I’m not sure how many times in our blog we’ve had to present a rebuttal to a Forbes article warning people about the dangers of writing your own Will, but a search through our blog for “Forbes” brings up eight of our articles. A little time has passed, and so Forbes have dusted off their arguments again, and packaged them in a new article with a new author; this time an estate planning lawyer from New York.

It starts with the classic scaremongering tactic of comparing writing a Will with performing surgery. An age old technique, which we debunked in our post from 2010 “Writing a Will is not brain surgery“. Lawyers try to justify their sky high prices by comparing what they do in 15 minutes (step through a series of questions using some pre-purchased software and downloading a Will), to brain surgery or laser eye surgery. The two are nothing close to equivalent. As we said in our previous post, lawyers are trying to make it seem like an black art that can only be performed by trained professionals when in fact

“Let’s get real. Writing your own Will is you, expressing how you would like your possessions to be distributed after you die. It may also include naming the person that you wish to look after your children if both you and the other parent were to both die at the same time. If you sign this document in the presence of two witnesses who then both sign, you have created a legal Last Will and Testament. It is not brain surgery, it is not laser eye correction surgery, it is simply an expression of your wishes for your estate.”

Remember, there is nothing in any law or statute regarding the creation of Wills that mentions the use of a lawyer as a requirement.

The most recent blog article from Forbes goes on to make two important claims. That “The courts are filled with cases of family members suing each other over ambiguous language in a will that must have seemed so easy to understand at the time it was written”. I would love to see a survey of Will contests to see how many result from Wills written using services like the one at LegalWills.ca , LegalWills.co.uk or USLegalWills.com, compared to how many are challenges to Wills written by a lawyer. Whenever I see a Will challenge in the news, it is invariably for a Will written by a lawyer. Some lawyers turn out to be unscrupulous, others incompetent. There is nothing in a self-prepared Will that makes it inherently more likely to be challenged. In fact, last year in the UK the Legal Services Board conducted a “mystery shopper” study of consumer Wills using software, will writing services and solicitors. The results were quite revealing;

“The experts judging the wills had no idea whether they had been drafted by solicitors, will-writers, or indeed a chap who had just stepped off the Clapham Omnibus. But solicitors firms should be aware of what they found. One in four of the wills was ‘failed’ by the panel, and more than one in three was scored as either ‘poor’, or ‘very poor’. The worrying aspect for the profession is that just as many of the failed wills were drawn up by solicitors!”

But wait, the final argument is always presented by estate planning lawyers that “improperly executed wills – for instance a will signed without the required witnesses – can be challenged in court”. This is of course true, but really? is this such a technically difficult concept for a layperson to understand that they should hire a lawyer? If you prepare your own Will, you must sign it in the presence of two adult witnesses who have no vested interest in the contents of the Will. There you have it. If you do this, you will have correctly signed your document.

We de-bunked another Forbes article in a previous post which gave 5 flimsy arguments for hiring a legal professional, but the article from last week appears to be the least compelling. When aggregated together the reasons for hiring an estate planning lawyer or solicitor appear to be

  • it’s as technically difficult as brain surgery (it isn’t)
  • it only costs a thousand dollars to hire a lawyer (a small amount if you’re a lawyer, but a large amount for the rest of us)
  • you may forget to sign the document in the presence of two witnesses (I think we can remember this)

Maybe this is why the Chief Justice of Canada The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin berated the legal profession as it had “ failed thousands of Canadians who don’t have a legal will, simply because they do not have the money to hire a lawyer to draft one or are so afraid that what it will cost will bankrupt them”