I learned from this post by Bob Ambrogi that Avvo, an online legal-services marketplace, has announced that it “has added a selection of no-cost, high-quality legal forms for family, business, estate planning and real estate to its website.” Avvo apparently expects to have more than 200 forms available by the end of 2016.
With no enthusiasm, I duly completed the questionnaire for one of the forms on offer, a mutual nondisclosure agreement. (Go here for a PDF of the output document.) Here are my impressions.
Avvo’s “wizard” offers bare-bones fill-in-the-blanks functionality, so you can forget about meaningful customization. It can’t even add or eliminate sections based on how you answer the questionnaire, hence inclusion of a bracketed section in the output document, with the notation “Include if concerned about publicity.”
The best thing you can say about the technology is that the questionnaire is uncluttered, has purty colors, and works on different platforms.
In the questionnaire, you’re asked to specify the following:
- the date
- the party names
- the nature of the business opportunity being explored
- what information of both parties remains confidential even if it’s not identified as confidential
- the governing law
- which courts (by county) have jurisdiction
- the signatories
- address information
But to get a sense of the effort that wasn’t put into this questionnaire, you have to consider the details.
You’re asked to express “today’s date” using the format MM/DD/YY, and that’s the way it shows up in the document. Besides being the cheesiest way of expressing dates, it also allows for confusion, given that everyone outside the U.S. uses the format DD/MM/YY. It’s a small point, but it tells the user from the get-go that you’re dealing with a bargain-basement product.
The only scenario offered is that the parties are exploring a possible business opportunity. So if, for example, you want a contract to cover disclosure of information in the context of an ongoing business relationship, you’re out of luck. And the phrasing of the question asking you to describe the business opportunity is eccentric: “What is the item concerned in this agreement?”
When it comes to choosing the governing law, you’re asked “What state is this agreement in?” That’s an odd way to formulate that question. I’ll tell you what state this agreement is in—not good.
Similarly, when it comes to specifying what courts have jurisdiction, you’re asked, “What county is this agreement in?” Odd.
You’re asked to provide the name of your company’s representative, their title, the company’s street address, and the company’s city, state, and zip code. But only the representative’s name shows up in the output document, in the signature block, and without the company’s name, perhaps suggesting that the representative is signing in their own capacity and not on behalf of the company. As for the company’s address, it doesn’t appear in the output document.
For the counterparty, you’re not asked the name of company representative, so just the company’s name shows up in the signature block. In addition to being asked to provide the counterparty’s address, you’re asked to provide an email address. None of that information appears in the output document.
The inconsistencies in the signatory and contact information requested for the parties and the fact that some of that information isn’t used indicates that we’re dealing with a slapdash operation.
I’m not about to spend the time it would take to assess all the deal choices reflected in the output document, so I’ll limit my comments to the definition of “Confidential Information.”
It’s defined as “information and physical material not generally known or available outside Discloser and information and physical material entrusted to Discloser in confidence by third parties.” But the contract then goes on to include its version of the standard exceptions. In other words, you have overlapping except-if-it’s-known carve-outs. That’s confusing. Compare that with what I use: “information (other than Excluded Information) relating to the Disclosing Party and its business that the Disclosing Party discloses to the Recipient during the Disclosure Period.”
The definition of “Confidential Information” includes more than six lines of examples, which is useless clutter. It’s also embarrassing: the list includes stuff that presumably isn’t relevant to people who use Avvo. My favorite is “mask works”; how many Avvo users are in the semiconductor industry?
Tacked on to the list of examples are conditions that have to be satisfied for information to be considered confidential. That suggests that the conditions apply just to the examples, which presumably wasn’t the intention. Of course, the examples are sufficiently comprehensive as to include pretty much everything, but the logic is nevertheless flawed.
The terminology used in defining “Confidential Information” is sloppy. The conditions mentioned above refer to information as “confidential or proprietary.” Why “proprietary”? And one of the exceptions to confidentiality refers to information that is “in the public domain”. As I point out in this 2010 post, that’s unduly narrow.
Based on my review of just this part of the contract, it appears that it was compiled by people with no specialized knowledge of confidentiality agreements.
As for the language used in Avvo’s nondisclosure agreement, it’s a thicket of the usual semiliterate crap. I expect that the number of objectionable usages I find would average out to about one per line. I’m not inclined to start giving examples, because that wouldn’t begin to convey the overall futility.
But I can’t resist pointing out that although the defined terms “Discloser” and “Recipient” are defined without, and are mostly used without, the definite article the, you can find scattered instances of both defined terms used with the. That’s a sure sign of careless drafting and nonexistent quality control.
Layout and Typography
Since Avvo evidently didn’t pay any particular attention to the layout and typography of the output document, I won’t either.
I’m confident that the nondisclosure agreement I looked at is representative of Avvo Legal Forms. So I can say that Avvo follows LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, and others in foisting crap on their users. (Go here for my review of a LegalZoom confidentiality agreement; go here for my review of a Rocket Lawyer confidentiality agreement.) The fact that Avvo isn’t charging for its forms is no reason to cut them any slack.
That Avvo has the gall to announce this dreck with some fanfare isn’t simply a failure on Avvo’s part. It’s symptomatic of a broader failure, in terms of quality, of the consumer market for fill-in-the-blanks contracts. That failure has to be attributed to hack vendors: you can’t blame consumers for not holding out for quality that currently isn’t available.
And the quality failure of the consumer market is just part of the quality failure of contract drafting as a whole.
A few years ago I dipped my toe in the commoditized-contract-drafting waters by offering an online confidentiality-agreement template for sophisticated users. I started by charging a pittance, then I made it free, and finally I took it down. As a business proof-of-concept, it was a washout, but the questionnaire itself remains of great value to me. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get back in this business with a suitable partner. Someone has to have standards.