Legal Document Assistants vs Online Divorce Services

Once you have determined that you can realistically avoid traditional full-representation lawyers’ fees in your uncontested divorce (see the first article in this series, Lawyers vs Non-Lawyers in California Divorce), the next choice is between traditional Main-Street or bricks-and-mortar Legal Document Assistants (used to be called “paralegals”) and online divorce providers, like NetDivorce, to get your divorce forms actually prepared. Ed West, your intrepid 35+ year divorce industry reporter and all-around swell guy, assesses the factors and reports on your options.

The prior article in this sequence discussed the choice facing new divorce consumers between hiring a lawyer or a non-lawyer to provide divorce services. That choice should be based entirely upon the pre-existing objective facts of your own divorce case and not upon your subjective judgment, i.e. what you think you want. The facts of your case alone should determine whether the primary divorce service you need is legal advice or divorce form preparation.

Of course, you want to hire a competent, honest non-lawyer to prepare your divorce papers because the cost savings are huge and the increased risk of fraud or incompetence by the non-lawyer is minimal with the exercise of some basic common sense and gut judgment on your part.

However, if the facts of your case include any dispute between you and your spouse, a very large marital estate, a special-needs child, a division of an on-going business, any requirement for specialist tax or trust advice, continuing medical problems or a realistic threat of violence or child abduction, you need to hire a lawyer. And that list is not exhaustive.

If you have one of those situations built into your case, then the divorce service you need is legal advice, and only lawyers can or should provide you legal advice. When you need legal advice, it is so valuable that you would essentially be paying only for that legal advice. You could almost think of it as paying the lawyer for the advice needed and she is just throwing in the forms preparation service at no additional cost. That’s how valuable legal advice is when your case needs it.

Refusing to hire a lawyer when you need legal advice is a recipe for disaster. If you bring “short arms disease” to the decision, the likely future costs will cure that disease for you very quickly. A non-lawyer is a cost-effective alternative, but should never be a substitute for a lawyer when a lawyer is needed, as dictated by the pre-existing facts of your case.

Take note also of the middle-ground. If your legal advice requirement is finite and minimal, you can consult with a lawyer, sometimes without cost, for your legal advice component and then hire a non-lawyer for the divorce document preparation component. But be firm. The lawyer with whom you consult will certainly try to rope you into hiring him or her, and as a lawyer, s/he will be persuasive.

Assuming now that you do not need a lawyer, your next choice is between two primary types of non-lawyer, and the choices don’t get easier. It is definitely buyer-beware, though there are still additional substantial savings to be made even after you have been able to avoid the cost of a lawyer.

Non-lawyer divorce service providers have fallen over the last 15 years into two kinds: traditional Main-Street or “bricks-and-mortar” or office paralegals and online divorce form preparers. For whatever reasons, these two types rarely overlap. While some bricks and mortar folks have websites, they are usually thin marketing sites without any functionality. Online divorce providers are generally nationwide or regional, and while they have offices, the chances of them being in your neighborhood are slim.

Below is my analysis of the main factors that should drive your decision between office paralegals and online paralegals. The factors are ranked from what I believe is the most critical in terms of decision making to the least critical.

By way of disclosure, my 30+ years of experience in very high volume California retail divorce have been divided as to 1981-2001 as a bricks and mortar divorce guy and as to 1999-present in online divorce only. So I have had substantial time in each camp. My personal professional choice in 1999 was driven by what I saw as the industry’s substantial long-term future, but that shouldn’t drive your personal choice. There are pros and cons for each type of non-lawyer.

Also, the weight I attach to each listed consideration may not be yours. Even though my own preference peeks through below, the following analysis is designed to allow you, as you read, to attach your own weight to each factor:

Face Time: If meeting your divorce provider in person is a deal maker/breaker for you, then your decision is made. Even if you happen to be in the same city as an online divorce provider, they are almost certainly not going to want to see you. That is not their business model. Only office paralegals provide face time. Even if they are not technically “bricks and mortar” and don’t have a public-access office, they will come to your home or office discreetly.

Face-time is both the best thing and the worst thing about hiring a Main-Street divorce paralegal. Some divorce consumers want to establish their own personal connection with their divorce provider because of the subject matter. Others want to avoid embarrassing interviews and discussions with their completely unknown divorce provider because of the subject matter. So you can see that there is no right or wrong choice here – just your own personal choice.

Cost: The cost factor slips to second place here because the face-time consideration is so highly personal.

But face-time costs big time. While there are a few exceptions, office paralegals’ (my experience is in California but probably applies nationwide) fees generally are in the $500-$600 range for an uncontested divorce. Online providers’ fees are in the $129-$300 range for an uncontested. County filing fees are extra unless you have a low income and can qualify for a waiver of those court costs.

Bear in mind here that in most parts of the country you can usually find a young lawyer starting out to handle an uncontested case for $600-$800, even lower if you can find a lawyer who offers unbundled services.  So if you really are considering a $600 non-lawyer, you may want to reconsider the young lawyer option at not much more cost, a lot less risk, available legal advice should the need arise and a likelihood of better client support. I’m not a big fan of either the business model or the integrity level of $500-$600 non-lawyers.

If you hire a Legal Document Assistants, get the final all-inclusive price in writing upfront. With an online provider, you should see that price stated clearly on their website. You should not have to click around to find the online price.

Questionnaire: The completed divorce papers don’t materialize out of thin air. The service provider has to extract the personal data from you somehow in order to complete the forms. This is true, BTW with lawyers too.  If you hire a $5000 lawyer, the first thing they hand you is a 10-page intake questionnaire.  In a bricks and mortar environment, that is also done via a hard-copy questionnaire, generally handed to you on a clipboard as you enter or emailed to you in pdf format before your appointment. The latter is better because there are almost always pieces of information you will not have handy at your office appointment.

With an online divorce provider, you fill in a secure encrypted “interview” in the comfort of your home or office. If you are missing some data off the top of your head, you log out, go and get it and log back in. You go at your own pace. You can complete the online interview in one or more sessions. It is much more convenient and less stressful than the hard-copy questionnaire routine.

This factor seems to be one where the online divorce providers are far ahead in terms of both convenience and higher accuracy of data provided.

Risk: By risk, I mean as to both the honesty and competency of non-lawyers. Yes, non-lawyers do come with a potential for increased excitement. Online non-lawyers more so, because they may think they can get away with it – on both the honesty and competency issues. This is because they are online, usually located outside your state and more difficult to obtain a judgment and collect against. They know this.

You can drastically reduce the risks inherent in online divorce forms preparation with a little basic consumerism. First, hire someone you know has been around a long time.

Next, look at several websites carefully. Assess any potentially misleading outreach, such as offering “free documents” (there ain’t no such –see the next article in this sequence).

Looks also for displays of the CBS, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, CNN and FOX logos that are not links (put your cursor over them and see if the cursor changes to a pointy finger – even then, follow the link – they may just link to the TV station – that doesn’t mean the online divorce provider has ever been featured on TV.  You can steal those logos from the appropriate sites and just claim that you’ve been on TV many times.

Stop and consider also whether having appeared on TV (usually in some soft general interests story) means that the online provider is more competent.  One of the main nationwide online divorce providers STILL features a 2-minute story on GMA from 2000, like that actually means anything today.

Forget client testimonials on the site unless it is clear that they have been certified by an actual existent testimonial certifying company that is not owned by the divorce website in question. Testimonials that are just presented without any further substantiation mean nothing and are actually an insult to your decision-making process.

Look for diversionary gimmicks such as letting you complete part of the online interview before you pay. They are counting on you feeling exposed and committed once they can get you to disclose private data. Are you likely to walk away once they have some private information?

Call the online divorce providers. Talk to someone. Ask a question or two about your own case and get a feel for both the professionalism and expertise they display.

Ultimately, wherever they are, an online divorce provider is subject to the Consumer Fraud Division of their local District Attorney’s Office. You’re never going to sue an online provider if things go wrong, but you will notice a distinct improvement in attitude and performance if you ever need to mention the D.A.’s office.

Filing Your Docs at Court: In most uncontested divorce cases, there is a need for two separate physical filings of documents at your local Superior (or similar in your state) Court. These two filings will be separated in time by a “default” period of usually 30 or 31 days after your spouse has been served with your divorce documents.

Don’t pay a non-lawyer divorce provider to stand in line at court to file your documents.  (Don’t pay a lawyer to do this either, but we’ve passed that stage in the first article in this series) It’s too easy. If you can’t do it yourself, your mom, sister, friend or anyone 18 or older can file your divorce documents at court. There is no science to filing at court. If there is something wrong with your papers, you have to go away, fix it and try again. If you make sure you sign all the papers in advance, there is rarely anything you can do on the spot to perfect the filing.

Online divorce providers don’t file your divorce forms at court for you – they tell you how to do it. That enables them to deduct the cost of standing in line to file. My estimate of the actual physical filing cost is $50-75 per filing, so this is a built-in $100-$150 cost savings in favor of an online divorce form preparer.

Conclusion: To sum up, face-time, if considered necessary, is decisive in favor of Legal Document Assistants, but get a full and final price in writing before you pay anything. Be prepared to pay for face-time.

If confidentiality and convenience are more important than face-time and you are comfortable with the concept of an online divorce provider, they are ahead significantly on the cost, questionnaire and filing-at-court considerations.

However, Legal Document Assistants are ahead on the risk factor because you can drop in to see them (face-time) if problems arise. The increased risk of an online divorce forms provider can be greatly reduced and controlled with basic consumerism. I hope this article has been helpful to you.

Legal Document Assistants vs Online Divorce Services


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