Online legal services for consumers are useful and continue to abound, yet may pose serious problems. That’s the conclusion of two separate and perhaps contradictory articles: Plunging Into Paperwork – Online services can help you draft a will — if you’re careful from the June 9, 2003 Wall Street Journal (in a special section on retirement) and Law & Disorder from July 2003 SmartMoney magazine. Note that both publications are from Dow Jones (though SmartMoney is published jointly with Hearst).

The WSJ article describes several web sites that help consumers draft wills. “Depending on the site, consumers can find everything from simple, blank forms to interactive questionnaires that help tailor documents to individual needs.” The article discusses the risks of using these web sites and points out that they typically are not offering legal advice. While pointing out the many risks of drafting a will without a lawyer, the tone of the article overall suggests that it’s not a bad idea.

In contrast, the SmartMoney article is quite negative on self-help legal web sites. The sub-title is a good summary: “[T]he trail of bungled lawsuits, mangled bankruptcies and amicable divorces turned acrimonious shows just how much chaos can ensue when people take the law into their own hands.”

Are there implications here for large law firms that provide (or hope to provide) online assistance to their corporate clients? I don’t think so. The consumer space is very different. A large law firm would typically deliver an online service via in-house counsel. Use of the system would be monitored and employees would typically either be quite sophisticated users or have the option to talk to counsel or both.