Free user-friendly online legal resources good for lawyers, access to justice

Are you an in-house counsel looking for ways to help control outside legal expenses? There’s good news: certain law firms are making “boilerplate” expertise available online — no obligation, no cost.

Here’s one example: suppose you need to create early stage financing documents. There’s a web-based tool you might want to check out.

Drafting business documents

Startups do things like raise capital, incorporate or assign intellectual property. Each one of these activities calls for a lawyer’s input.

Joe Milstone wondered how much input these documents truly need. “Each one was treated as a bespoke piece of work,” said the co-founder of Toronto-based Caravel Law. This approach disregards the fact that most startups can’t afford to have much money gobbled up by legal fees.

Last year, Caravel sponsored a project by the National Angel Capital Organization (NACO) to develop common documents that companies can use to generate first drafts of these documents. Caravel simultaneously developed Caravel Law Compass, a tool that automates creation of these documents.

“Anybody who comes to our website can access this,” Milstone said, adding that some in-house lawyers “are running with this on their own.”

Understanding estate law

Businesses want workable first drafts of their legal documents without incurring legal fees. In the same way, people preparing their estates want to learn about the process in layperson’s terms. In British Columbia, such people gravitate to Nicole Garton’s Estate Guide for British Columbia wiki (a “wiki” is a website that can be modified by users).

Garton, principal of West Vancouver-based Heritage Law, first published this wiki in 2014. The project served as “a way for me to learn the new legislation,” she said, referring to B.C.’s Wills, Estates and Succession Act. Approached by several professors, she granted permission for the wiki to be used as paralegal and business community college course materials.

Precedents

Neither Garton nor Milstone claims to be originals. Garton’s wiki was inspired by John-Paul Boyd’s family law wiki. “My site is the estate version of what JP did,” she said. Milstone noted that a Silicon Valley firm was well known for helping startups using freely available document assembly tools. And these two web-based resources aren’t the only ones published by Canadian law firms.

Business objectives

Milstone insisted winning business is not the key reason Caravel created Compass. He noted that the cost of business legal services drives many small and medium-sized businesses to do this work themselves. “This equips them better,” he said. “We’ll be in a good position to be their trusted service provider for the work when we really do add more value.”

He wants to build his firm’s brand as a tech-enabled, cost-effective service provider. Offering tools like Compass for public use reinforces that brand.

Like Milstone, Garton didn’t share business development numbers, but she said wiki readers have become clients when they felt they needed her help.

Costs

Neither Milstone nor Garton fretted over cost. Milstone assigned mid-level associates and other internal resources to learn the contracts and Contract Express, the tool used to build Compass. Licensing fees for Contract Express make up Caravel’s main cash outlay on the product.

Over the years, Garton figures she has spent upward of $5,000 to build her wiki. She does all updates, including the 2017 rewrite to catch up to B.C. case law and tax changes. “It’s not static,” she said. “You must maintain it. I have to keep up to date with the law anyway, so I use the wiki as a learning tool.”

Best practices

Both Garton and Milstone state the obvious on their home pages: their sites are intended as resources only and not as legal advice.

No informational site can meet every possible demand. Compass automates creation of the most commonly used business documents only. This means Compass doesn’t offer every document prospective clients may need. It also means the drafts generated must be tailored to a company’s specific needs.

Both Garton and Milstone stick to layman’s terms to make their resources accessible to non-lawyers.

Future plans

Aside from updates, Garton has hired a Victoria-based self-publishing company to turn the wiki into an e-book.

Milstone didn’t share specific plans for Compass. “Our goal is to equip our legal service delivery team with the best tools possible,” he said, noting that he sees the legal field ruled by increasingly tech-enabled providers.

“If we don’t take leadership on such tools, somebody else will,” Milstone added. “The days of pulling wool over clients’ eyes about an inefficient and overpriced service model are gone.”

Garton expounded on her abundance mentality. “Don’t be afraid to share your knowledge,” she said. “I’m surprised more lawyers don’t. With the democratization of information, and people not being able to afford legal services, lawyers’ roles as advisers are evolving.”

“We had a monopoly on this information that we don’t have anymore. Instead of fighting it, we should work with it.”

This article originally appeared on The Lawyer’s Daily website, published by LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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