The Georgia House of Representatives last week debated Senate Bill 209, which proposes to add this provision to the Georgia Code:

The design, creation, assembly, completion, publication, distribution, display or sale, including by means of an internet website, of self-help legal written materials, books, documents, forms, computer software or similar products shall not constitute a violation of Article 3 of Chapter 19 of Title 15

[regarding the unlicensed practice of law] if such products clearly and conspicuously state that they are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.

The Georgia Bar opposes this bill.  Bar President Charles Ruffin disseminated a blast email to all Bar members imploring opposition for three reasons:

 (1) These websites warrant that their forms meet the specific legal requirements of the consumer’s state law. Whether or not they do is a legal interpretation best left to be determined by the finder of fact.

(2) Many of these websites offer “hands on attention from attorneys,” yet the consumer doesn’t know which states these attorneys are licensed from the face of the website itself.

(3) The bill does not define what constitutes a “conspicuous” disclaimer and most disclaimers on these websites are in tiny print and difficult to find.

The State Bar of Georgia’s paramount principal is ensuring easy access to justice for all people, but SB 209 does not do so. In fact, it protects entities that may be impermissibly practicing law in this state and putting our citizens at risk of harm.

The March 7, 2014, edition of the Fulton County Daily Report contained an article regarding the House debate, observing that the disagreements did not follow party or practice lines.   Those supporting the bill argued that the bill would benefit consumers (in part by leaving to them the decision whether to use the various web-based services) and that legal self-help websites would be liable to damaged consumers under the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act and product liability theories and might also be subject to criminal charges. I will leave the veracity of the remedial analysis to my colleagues more knowledgeable in the area.  Anecdotally, I understand that enforcement of such claims is difficult, at best, in part because Georgia does not have a private right of action for damages suffered as a result of the unlicensed practice of law.  Senate Bill 209 played a major role in preventing the passage of a bill that would have established such a right.

Other representatives, again both Republican and Democrat, both attorneys and non-attorneys, countered that Senate Bill 209 was a preemptive effort by companies like Legalzoom to avoid being sued in Georgia for the unlicensed practice of law as they are and have been in other states and that the bill, if passed, would make it more difficult for damaged consumers to sue.

The House ultimately tabled the bill.   My guess is that it will not pass, but one cannot be too confident in the chicaneries of the final days of the legislative session.