Avoid The Dog In The Basket

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Help Me Clear The Fog To Make Good Legal Decisions

 “Can’t Do That On LegalZoom”

The title above appears on a t-shirt that my students gave me which has the LegalZoom™ logo on it. Above it in felt-tip marker is written “Can’t do that on” They also signed it on the back. The reason they gave me that shirt is that they heard me describe how on-line legal services are not always the best possible alternative for individuals during my Estate Planning class.

Don’t get me wrong, many individuals will not seek the services of a lawyer and without Legalzoom™, they would not seek assistance of any sort. Some individuals will always look for more efficient ways to accomplish their goals. And to their credit, Legalzoom™ is one of the entities providing a service that appears to have met an unmet need. Many lawyers see this and other legal access sites as their impending doom and a major game changer for legal services for the future. I see it somewhat differently.

A True Story

For example, as a high school student exactly 50 years ago, I was employed at a veterinary clinic on weekends. At that clinic, there were over 60 cages which were used to house animals who were recovering from medical interventions. The majority of them, however, were used to board animals for a fee. One of my tasks was to take the animals (usually dogs) and put them in “runs” so they could get exercise. Meanwhile I cleaned their cages and refreshed their water and food. One of the animals boarded almost every weekend was a German Shepherd. The “owners” would bring the dog to the clinic for the weekend and pick him up on Mondays.

Let me describe that animal. He was full-grown and always carried into the clinic in a padded basket. The reason he didn’t come in on a leash was that he couldn’t walk. In fact, all he did was lay on his side. Periodically, using the muscles of the trunk of his body, he would rise a few inches. He was paralyzed in his extremities. His eyes would often be matted and it was essential that he be placed on a lamb’s fleece and turned periodically. I was astonished at the condition of this dog when I first saw him and asked the veterinarian, why this was so?

The vet explained that that couple had been charged with the care of this dog after the owner had passed away. He said that it was his understanding that they were being paid a monthly stipend to care for the dog as long as it lived. He also explained that the affliction of that animal occurred after the original owner had passed away. Personally, I found it objectionable that they would keep that dog alive. As I look back, as a skeptic, I feel their motives were suspect and that the money was the object of their affection, not the welfare of that dog.

The lesson? Unintended consequences may flow from your carefully laid plans as in this case. Be careful what you wish for! You love your pet and put in place what you believe are safeguards to protect your dog after you pass away. You establish a pet trust to insure that your dog is cared for after you are gone. As a result of this experience, if I established a trust for a pet, I would provide for a trusted, uncompensated, third party with powers to intervene and terminate the trust under certain circumstances consistent with the welfare of the animal. But that advice is personal to me and would flow from my legal education and experience. The owner of that dog would have probably been horrified at the outcome and no cost would be too great to prevent such a miscarriage of their intent.

“Can’t Get That On LegalZoom™”

This brings me to the title of this post which happens to be on my t-shirt and the connection to this story. I hear many attorneys lament the development of legal resources on the internet and the potential they have to affect their bottom line. I couldn’t disagree more. Examples like the one above demonstrate that there will always be a place for good legal counsel which cannot be accessed on-line. All of my students inquire of their clients whether they have any pets to help the client make well-reasoned decisions concerning their care after the client dies. The least valuable outcome for any client is the document itself. It is the counseling that goes into informed decision-making and execution on that plan that has the greatest value. It really requires someone experienced enough to see the potential “parade of horrors” that may dominate the ultimate outcomes of a client’s best laid plans. They can do it on their own, but they risk the “dog in a basket” outcome. And after the person dies, who will probate the estate? The counseling before preparation and later execution of that plan is where the greatest skill must be employed. As you will notice, even websites of self-prepared documents offer to connect the applicant with attorneys for the legal advice that that person may wish to consult. The problem is that the self-help individual may not have the ability to understand that there are legal or practical considerations that can only be the product of education and experience.

Experience is a hard teacher. She gives the test first and the lessons afterwards. – Anonymous

Recently one of my students came back from the Register of Deeds Office in our county. When the Registrar heard the student say that she was in her third year of law school, the Registrar told her to try to get individuals to seek her services in drafting their deeds. The reason for this was that the Registrar’s office gave blank deeds to individuals who sought them as a service to the community. As long as those deeds were in “record-able form” the Registrar was obligated to record them. However, she explained, “they are usually full of errors in the legal descriptions or types of estates granted”. And the Registrar is prohibited from giving legal advice. So she must record those “messes” as she described them.  She found it extremely frustrating to see this going on, but could not intercede or offer any legal advice.

Many of the errors introduced or poor planning decisions eventually will play out in some fashion. True, some are harmless and can be rectified without too much difficulty. But how many of those errors cost more in the rectification which than offsets the “savings” realized in the initial creation of that legal document? The solution is better public awareness of the types of legal conundrums people routinely find themselves in by the Bar or the ABA. Everyday another example of misplaced or misunderstood actions by non-attorneys crosses my desk in one way or another.

The Lesson For You

If you have been in practice for any length of time, you know of the value of good counsel. We need to do a better job of helping the potential client understand why a lawyer’s knowledge and experience in the process is “invaluable”. Tell them a “true story” of your own so they understand the value of your service. See “Sell The Sizzle, Not The Steak”, an earlier post on this blog for suggestions how you might do that.










Posted in For Established Solos, For Law Students, For Recent Graduates.


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