Should You Retain A Divorce Lawyer, Do It Yourself or Hire an Online Service?

Every day I get at least one telephone call from a potential client “price shopping” for a divorce attorney. I am not surprised by this; it is not uncommon to see advertisements for divorce lawyers in the subway, on roadside billboards and in newspapers all boasting about their low flat fees.  The question is do you want to retain the cheapest lawyer or the best lawyer for your divorce?  As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.  The DIY online or bargain legal providers are no substitute for actual legal representation.

When a client retains me in a divorce,  the representation is personalized.  We strive to give the client as must support is needed.   Communications with clients, whether through in person, over the telephone or via email is encouraged.  We client intake is always a conversation, not an online form, so we can ask questions as we develop our theory of the case.

Most of the online “providers”  and the DIY sites require their clients to populate their personal information in online questionnaires; the provided information is then used to generate legal forms. While there may be some instructions, wrong answers may later cause problems or have legal consequences.

In a recent article in Forbes, Jeanne Croteau described her regrettable experience in using an online divorce service.  She described the cumbersome and confusing process of inputting her personal information, which resulted in errors, frustration, “confusion and uncertainty.”  Adding to the confusion was her inability to interact and communicate with her legal representatives; she was limited to online exchanges.   As Ms. Crotreau explained: “There’s no replacement for being able to talk to someone face-to-face, so attempting to file for divorce through a virtual system can be difficult under the best of circumstances. Communicating with workers while trying to overcome a language barrier only added to the challenge..  . .”

I am presently working with a client whose wife retained a discounted divorce mill to represent her.  When I and then the Court pointed out that there was a problem with the uncontested divorce papers that they prepared, the discount attorney told their client, that her “legal fee” did not include attorney-to-attorney communications.  They actually directed her to communicate directly with me (which is ethically not permissible) to solve the problem.

Even if the client manages to input all the information correctly, the service may not provide documents they are compliant with state or local rules and practice. Every state has its own “forms” and, even though New York divorce practice is supposed to be standardized statewide, there are often nuanced differences by county and amongst the in-take clerks who are gate-keepers to the divorce process. A one size fits all approach to legal document generation does not work.

Over the years, I have been retained to review pre-nuptial and separation agreements that my client’s downloaded from various legal form sites.   The parties thought that they would save money by drafting the agreement themselves, using the online form,  and then paying attorneys to “bless” the agreement.  More often than not, these agreements failed to contain essential terms or language required by New York law.  If the parties ever sought to enforce the agreements as written, they would find that parts of their agreements were unenforceable or invalid.  The parties do not end up saving money by using this approach;  it often takes longer to review and then revise a bad “form” agreement than it would taken to draft it in the first place.

As Ms. Croteau found,  the ultimate cost for her online representation was far more than the advertised.   The low fee had all sorts of add-ons, for shipping, revisions and processing fees. The advertised cost did not even include the court filing fees.   Many of the “services” require the client to physically file the papers themselves.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to legal representation. The online “form” model may work for simple matters, i.e., uncontested divorces, where there is no issue as to child custody or where there is no claim for equitable distribution, maintenance or child support. But, most divorcees will benefit from personalized legal representation.

If you are seeking experienced and skilled legal representation in connection with your divorce,  please call at 212-683-9551 or email us.

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