The law is on your side. (legal software)(includes related articles) (Buyers Guide)
by Rosalind Resnick, Gary Taylor
No matter where you turn, you can't go very far without brushing up against the legal system. If you're like most people, this means hiring an attorney and spending a small fortune, buying a fill-in-the-blank legal form from the local stationery store, or not putting anything in writing and taking your chances.
There is a better way. By investing less than $100 in the legal software of your choice, you can prepare your own will, contracts, leases, and other legal documents with the speed, ease, and accuracy once available only to legal professionals. And now that lawyers often charge $100 an hour or more (frequently for documents generated by professional legal software similar to personal legal software), home legal software makes more sense than ever.
Prices are coming down, and programs are getting friendlier. You own it to yourself to give legal software a try. The Software Publishers Association says that sales of forms software, which includes self-help legal programs, soared by 84 percent through the third quarter of 1991, more than four times the growth rate of the software industry as a whole.
To see why legal software is catching on, consider the case of Harry Hunter. Hunter who runs a consulting and tax accounting practice in Union, New Jersey, purchased Parsons Technology's It's Legal in November 1991 to help him draft customer contracts.
"But I noticed it had a collection letter, too," Hunter recalls. "So the first thing I did was use it to draft a letter to a client who owed me money. I didn't expect to get paid, but I hoped that the letter and the deadline would at least generate a phone call. Then I expected to take the letter to my lawyer and have him finish the collection. Instead, I got full payment from the client. I never had to show it to my attorney."
The bottom line on this single transaction: Hunter saved the 30 to 40 percent he would have had to pay his lawyer to collect the money, a savings that more than paid for the program.
Unlike do-it-yourself tax software, self-hel[ legal software has taken awhile to catch on. Steve Elias, copublisher at Nolo Press (the Berkeley, California, firm that produces WillMaker, a popular will-drafting program), says many people still fear that they'll mess up if they attempt to draft a legal document on their own.
Those fears aren't entirely unfounded. Even so, legal software represents a giant step beyond fill-in-the-blank legal documents. And unlike the paper forms, computer-generated documents can be updated easily and printed out neatly and professionally. Simply plug your answer into a program's question-and-answer format, and out pops a documetn written in impeccable legalese.
Not for Everybody
Despite the many pluses, however, legal software isn't for everybody. If your legal problem is complex or if you've been sued or charged with a crime, hiring a lawyer is your best bet. Because of estate tax implications, Elias suggests that small-business owners and people with estates worth more than $600,000 consult a lawyer when drawing up a will. It's also important to note that few legal software programs will work for Louisiana, which, unlike the rest of the nation, has a legal system based on the French civil code rather than English common law.
"People want life to be simple, but it's not," says Paul Stokes, a trusts and estates lawyer at Kelley Drye & Warren in Miami. "Even when people have small estates, the planning has to be careful. Little mistakes are magnified, and there are all kinds of little traps in a will. But there certainly is a need to develop legal services for the middle class, and legal software is a step in that direction."
Even the software publishers acknowledge their programs' limitations. "We don't publish them to take the place of a lawyer, just to make the law accessible," says Monica Jackson, product manager of MECA's Home Lawyer.
With those caveats in mind, it's reassuring to know that, when it comes to shopping for legal software, there are choices available to fit most people's needs and budgets. Softhink/Expert's one-purpose Expert Will retails for only $14.95, while other programs, like BLOC's Personal Law Firm, that do everything from drafting contracts to writing collection letters and prenuptial agreements cost less than $100.00. Specialized programs that create employee handbooks and other corporate documents typically cost more.
The Case for Legal Software
Here's a look at how some of the leading programs in the legal software field stack up:
WillMaker (69.96) is the granddaddy of legal software programs. It was first released by Nolo Press in 1985 and has sold nearly 300,000 copies since then. Besides its easy-to-use software, the strength of the WillMaker program is its 200+-page manual containing detailed and accurate information on a variety of topics related to making a will. With WillMaker, you can specify up to 16 different bequests; name alternate beneficiaries; create trusts for your minor children; choose a way to pay your debts, funeral expenses, and estate taxes; and protect against overlooked heirs.
BLOC Publishing's Personal Law Firm ($99.95) is the largest and most comprehensive legal software program available. It creates documents for both personal and business use. Its 30 documents include such exotics as Trade Secret Protection, License of Intellectual Property, Warranty Agreement, and Pre- and Post-Nuptial Agreements. The program's two 250-page user's guides explain features, answer questions, include sample documents, and feature a glossary and an index of legal terms.
Hyatt Home Lawyer ($79.95), produced by MECA Ventures with help from the Hyatt law-clinic chain, isn't as comprehensive as Personal Law Firm, but it's less expensive and helps you draw up most of the personal and business documents you're likely to need. Among the program's 19 documents are the following: a will, an employment agreement, a power of attorney, a bill of sale for a motor vehicle, and an independent contractor agreement. There's also an online glossary of legal terms to help you wade through the legalese and a help key.
It's Legal ($69), from Parsons Technology, offers a full range of legal documents--a will, a living will, a lease, a promissory note, a general power of attorney, and others--at an attrative price. The living will, a document not found in several other programs, lets you decide if you want to be kept alive should you become terminally ill or require life support and lose your ability to think rationally. Unfortunately, there is a downside: Few of It's Legal's documents will help you run your business.
Expert Will and Home Will Kit ($14.95 and $29.95 respectively) are produced by Softhink/Expert, a subsidiary of BLOC Publishing. These products offer a low-cost solution for making your will. Expert Will prepares simple wills only, while Home Will Kit generates a living will as well.
The Desktop Lawyer ($99.95) is unlike the other legal software programs in that it doesn't use a question-and-answer format but functions as a document library on disk. The user simply chooses from 300 documents; then the program copies it, loads it into the word processor, and customizes it to suit your needs. The Desktop Lawyer is the brainchild of Orlando lawyer Laurence Pino, who also offers a consultation service for $100.00 a year that lets you consult with lawyers by phone as questions arise.
JIAN Tools for Sales offers a line of legal products including Living TrustBuilder and AgreeMentor, each aimed at a specialized area of the legal assistance market. Like the Desktop Lawyer, these products require that you have a separate word processing program for customizing documents.
No matter which legal software program you buy, make sure it includes the following useful features:
* A helpful reference manual: Managing your legal affairs consists of far more than simply drafting documents and filing in blanks. WillMaker's manual, for instance, gives advice on how to plan your estate, how to sign and update your will properly, how to name a personal guardian for your children, and other topics related to the will-making process.
* Clear language: Though it's important for your document to be legally accurate, it's also essential that you understand what you're signing. If you can't make your way through legalese, make sure the program you buy offers onscreen definitions and user help to make everything understandable in layman's language.
* Interactive capability: The question-and-answer format used by most legal software programs makes drafting legal documents quick and simple. "Comparing the program to forms in books, I'd say it's easier to use because you don't have to type anything," says Hunter, who recently bought It's Legal. "You just plug in the information by answering the questions. It minimizes error because you can customize the letters to the situations."
* Flexibility: No matter how routine
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your legal problem may seem, you need a program that lets you tailor each document to fit your needs. If you don't think your kids will be responsible enough to handle an inheritance until they're 30, you need a program that will create a will to hold the property until then. And, since state laws vary, it's important to find a program that creates binding documents for your particular state. (In Louisiana, that can be a problem.)
* Good text editing: Unless you're the type who does corssowrd puzzles in pen, it's a good idea to buy a program that lets you save your document to disk so you can evise or finish it later. The program should also allow you to review your document onscreen and revise it before printing.
The Law and You
Now you know the range of software available to you for routine business forms and personal legal matters. But what's next for legal software? The experts say that in the future legal software programs will become speedier, simpler to use, and more complete. Expert systems might help you anticipate problems instead of reacting to them as they crop up. Still, it's unlikely that a computer program will ever be able to take the place of a lawyer--after all, the documents you draft on your PC can still be challenged in court. Even the best legal software won't make a brilliant closing argument in your defense or help you weasel out of a contract. Besides, without lawyers, who would write the legal software?