Avoiding Legal Website Scams and Pitfalls

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When searching online for legal forms or information, it is important to use safe internet practices to avoid scams or other misrepresented services. 

When representing oneself, it is up to each litigant to understand the procedures of a lawsuit, draft the legal forms required, file them with the court, notify the other parties, and present the case to the judge in court. Many self-represented (pro se) litigants think that legal information and forms are readily available online. When using a search engine to look for answers to a legal question, many websites for attorneys, legal documents, and other legal services appear as advertisements or in the search results. However, not every online source is a reputable source of legal information.

Question-and-answer style webpages where online users post legal questions and are seemingly met with responses from attorneys are not always the best sources of legal information. Be wary of social media posts and videos that claim to describe shortcuts or other unusual methods for navigating the legal system.

When reviewing a website that offers legal services, such as drafting legal documents or answers to legal questions, read carefully what services are provided before offering any personal information or payment. Always be cautious of any website that asks for payment information, such as a credit card number.

Some websites advertise the service of drafting legal forms for a small fee. While the forms that are delivered may or may not be useful, these websites often only draft the forms and return them to the purchaser, and many self-represented litigants think that is enough to complete their case. Completing legal forms is one step of legal procedure, and it is up to the litigant to file the forms with the appropriate court. There are fees to file legal forms with the court that are not covered by the fees charged by a website that drafts legal forms.

Many sample legal forms are available for free through websites maintained by courts or by nonprofit legal centers, for example. Members of the public can also pick up certain form packets “to go” at Jenkins’ front desk (free) or come into the library ($5/day) to search for sample forms that may not be available online. Jenkins’ Self-Help: Finding Forms research guide provides examples of where to find forms, whether online or at the library.

If a party is not going to represent themself, remember that only a licensed attorney can provide legal advice or represent a party in court. When researching attorneys or law firms, it is important to look beyond the information provided in a website link that pops up in a search engine.

The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania collects information on all attorneys who are allowed to practice in the state. Its Look Up an Attorney feature can be searched by name, ID number, city, or county. The results will state the status of an attorney’s license and whether they have any history of disciplinary action.

Bar associations can provide referrals to attorneys who practice in certain areas of law. The Pennsylvania Bar Association offers a Lawyer Referral Service which operates in 47 of the state’s 67 counties. Locally, the Philadelphia Bar Association offers a Lawyer Referral and Information Service. Find more referral services and legal directories on Jenkins’s Self-Help: Find a Lawyer guide.

To find free legal help, check out Jenkins’ Self-Help: Free Legal Aid guide for information on where to apply for free legal representation in Philadelphia or PA.

Customer review websites such as Yelp or Google Maps provide a further look into the legitimacy of an attorney or law firm as well as the perspectives of other litigants who have worked with them. Social media websites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter are also accessible sources of information about an attorney or law firm.

It is also important to be aware of common scams. To learn more, visit the following trusted resources:

**This blog post was originally written and published by our colleagues at the Harris County Robert W. Hainsworth Law Library in Houston, Texas. With their permission – and our appreciation! – we’ve edited their initial post to tailor it with information relevant to Philadelphia and/or Pennsylvania.**