The traditional role of the solicitor as the bastion of all legal knowledge is changing with increased access to legal advice online. However, should you trust online advice?
Visiting the solicitor used to be the first port of call for any legal advice, from house purchases to divorce to will writing and issues of probate. With today’s technology, it’s easy to find information, and even legal forms online, so more people look towards the web for a more do-it-yourself approach to legal services.
Why do more people choose online legal advice?
A recent survey by YouGov found that only one third of people seek advice for legal issues, with two thirds avoiding solicitors, in part due to a lack of understanding as to whether legal advice would help them or which firm to choose, and in part due to costs.
The same survey found that 65% of people didn’t feel legal help was affordable for the majority of consumers.
With an increasing number of websites offering cheap, or even free, legal advice online, it’s no wonder that today’s more technologically savvy people head to the internet. However, there are pitfalls to avoid.
It’s clear from the questions my clients ask me that they have done some research into their legal issues. I strongly advocate the use of online services where it’s appropriate, and in fact provide resources myself for clients, but it is vital people know how to use them safely.
Why should you check out who’s giving the advice?
Many sites offer free advice, but the information is often vague and even, somewhat scarily, incorrect. It’s important that you check the authenticity of the site – and that it is written for the UK market. Always confirm that the author of the article you are reading is a qualified and practising solicitor. A number of sites are written by self-proclaimed experts but you need to be careful; they may not have legal qualifications or be up to date with recent statutory or regulatory changes.
You can easily check the name of the author on www.lawsociety.org.uk, which lists all practising solicitors in the UK.
Free legal advice is not necessarily cheaper
It’s true that the information you obtain online might be free when you take it, but if it is incorrect it could cost you a lot more in the long run, especially if you are missing essential details or download forms that are out of date.
There are legal services you might want to manage yourself, such as writing your own will. If your family life and assets are straightforward, this can be a cheaper option.
However, I am often approached by clients who have investments or properties that mean their assets exceed the inheritance tax limit or whose family relationships are complicated. This is where getting advice from a solicitor can help save money in the long run. We can help you ensure more of your estate goes to your beneficiaries, and not the government or to the wrong people.
You don’t know what you don’t know
Many consumers feel that they are paying for solicitors to fill in paperwork when they can do it for themselves. Of course, some legal services do involve elements of this.
For example, I have encountered a number of landlords who have completed their own tenancy agreements, or clients who have drafted their own will. It’s not until the landlord needs to enforce the agreement or the executor comes to read the will that problems may be found. By that time it’s too late to correct any issues.
My key concern with a lot of do-it-yourself legal services is that without legal training you don’t know what you don’t know. Online articles can only provide the broadest outline of what could be an intricate matter, and are too general to adapt to your personal circumstances.
A solicitor, on the other hand, is able to take into account all aspects of your life and assets to advise you of the wider implications and help you avoid any bear traps.
Do-it-yourself legal advice with help to save money and get it right
There is another way. My best piece of advice is that if you do use DIY legal services, make sure everything you do can be double-checked.
Yes, you can save costs by filling in forms yourself, but if you are ever in doubt over any aspect, or just want to be certain you have thought out every scenario, please have it checked by a solicitor.
It’s a new approach for solicitors, becoming more of an advisory service, but one I feel reflects the change that we need to take to meet the needs of modern consumers.
I encourage my clients to do-it-themselves to a point, with the use of a well-supported online service. But they do so with the reassurance that they can easily access our support and guidance. We can help you consider the wider picture – for example, you can complete a Power of Attorney yourself, but choosing the wrong wording could invalidate it.
Online legal services with expert help
The good news is that some law firms are already moving with the times. Now you can access online services such as ‘Be My Own Lawyer’ and have benefits such as access to documents at your own convenience, any time of day or night and a choice of subscription packages and fixed fees, so that you can clearly see what you are buying. You can also obtain affordable expert advice, knowing that the website is devised and maintained by experts, allowing you to complete your own paperwork and manage your costs effectively.
A meeting with your solicitor may not be the only option any more, but it’s still important you receive the right advice when you need it. I’ve listened to the changes in demands from my own clients, and now by offering more online I am giving them a choice, which is exactly what they want; cost effective DIY options, with the peace of mind that comes from having a qualified solicitor backing them up.
As with everything online you should always be careful whose advice you take. If in doubt, get professional help and be safe, not sorry.
For more information contact Barker Evans Law