“Greg,” a prospective client might ask me, “Where can I find a free online form to create my contract/document/will?”
“I don’t recommend doing that,” I would likely respond.
“But isn’t the democratization of the law something to celebrate?” they might retort. “Why are you against progress?”
Just to be clear, I’m not against the public having access to affordable and useful legal information (what do you think this blog is, after all?) and I’m very much in favor of people with genuine financial limitations having SOMETHING rather than nothing. So in a pinch, if you can’t afford a lawyer, a template document can be a useful tool.
But it’s true that I don’t like free online forms and don’t trust them. And if you’re not in dire financial straits, I don’t recommend using them. Why?
You don’t know what’s in them. The legalese in these forms can be confusing and because of that, the form might contain language that isn’t applicable to your situation, or worse, is actively harmful to your interests. I’ve seen first hand how badly this can go… several years ago I had a client who used an online form to license his work to another party. But because he selected the wrong form, he accidentally ended up selling the rights to his work outright and wasn’t able to get them back. There’s a reason lawyers spend so much time and money on schooling and then years working for other attorneys… to build up the knowledge base and skills needed to understand how to read and write these documents.
They’re not written for your needs. While forms can sometimes be a useful jumping off point, they can fail to address issues that are unique to your situation. Not all documents are made equal and you may require specific language in yours that a form can’t anticipate. And if you intend to use a contract template over and over again, there may be differences between your own clients that necessitate changes between contracts. For example, you may require different payment terms for different clients because one has proven to pay timely and reliably and another has proven to be delinquent. A form is designed to be a one-size fits all approach that may not be appropriate for you.
They can’t anticipate what you don’t know to look for. Let’s be honest. You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why you hire a professional anytime something bad happens with your car, your house, your lower back, etc. Using a form that can’t anticipate your knowledge level means you could be leaving money on the table you didn’t know you had a right to; it could leave out important clauses that protect your interests and include clauses that harm you; it could result in ambiguous terms that neither party can understand; it could force you into arbitration when you’d rather use the court system. You may end up worse than you started because you didn’t know what to look for.
They may not be legally valid in your state. While many contract provisions are valid no matter where you live, some states have very specific rules regarding contract construction or formalities that a form may not pick up on. For example, if you are drafting a will, some states may require you to have it notarized and attested while others don’t. Some states may permit a contract to be modified while other states may forbid it. Failing to check your state's specific language requirements for documents may render them legally invalid.
I understand that attorneys are expensive and I also know there’s a subset of people who just want to DIY everything, but the benefit to having an attorney draft your document is that you’ll be able side-step these pitfalls while also having your needs met in real time. So no, I won’t tell you where to find free form templates online. Partly because I want you to pay me to do it for you, but largely because I want you to get it done right.