Revisiting Avvo Legal Forms, Part 1: Failure of Quality Control and Failure of Imagination

You might have seen last Friday’s post about Avvo Legal Forms (here). It prompted enough comment that I thought some follow-up was in order.

Avvo’s Response

In my post I was categorical that Avvo Legal Forms is, as I put it in the title, a real stinker. That prompted a response from Avvo’s CEO, Mark Britton, as reported by Bob Ambrogi here.

But Britton’s remarks to Bob address primarily what Avvo hopes to achieve with Avvo Legal Forms. It all sounds plausible enough, depending on how you feel about consumers creating contracts, but it has nothing to do with the quality of their forms.

Here’s what Bob’s piece says regarding quality:

Britton says that Avvo hired lawyers to create the base forms and to be sure that they are compliant in all states. It is unfair, he suggests, to compare these forms to ones created by a lawyer.

“You cannot compare a bespoke product from a lawyer that will cost you thousands of dollars to a product that is an entry-level product designed for people who are doing everything they can to avoid a lawyer,” he says. “Let’s get them that product and then start the conversation from there.”

The first paragraph is unintentionally amusing: We hired lawyers to create these forms—don’t compare them to ones created by lawyers!

That aside, Britton’s point—that it’s unfair to compare Avvo’s forms with bespoke work—was also made by Josh King, Avvo’s chief legal officer, in a comment to my post, here. I have two points to make in response.

A Failure of Quality Control

First, nothing in my post compares Avvo’s nondisclosure agreement with bespoke work. Instead, I consider their product on its own terms. The implications of allowing consumers to generate their own contracts are certainly worth discussing, but that’s not what my post was about.

Instead, I detailed how as a foundation for automated contract creation, Avvo’s nondisclosure agreement is of head-scratchingly poor quality. There’s the too-bare-bones technology that precludes meaningful customization, the glitchy questionnaire, the English-but-not-English wording of the questionnaire, the problematic substance, the bloated prose.

Among the tweets launched in response to my post, one of my favorites is this one by Bob Ambrogi:

In alluding to a do-they-suck standard (originated by someone else), this tweet cheerfully surpasses the plain speaking on display in Friday’s post. I suggest that anyone who thinks Avvo’s nondisclosure agreement doesn’t meet that standard isn’t paying attention.

A Failure of Imagination

But what’s more perturbing about Avvo’s response is their aspirations for Avvo Legal Forms, or rather their lack of aspirations.

When used in connection with preparing contracts, the word “bespoke” is a euphemism for inefficiency. It’s standard practice for lawyers to prepare a new contract by retrieving a precedent contract or, less often, a template and making changes to reflect the new transaction. There are three drawbacks to that process.

First, thanks to generations of copying and pasting without the benefit of guidelines or real training, whatever is copied to create a new contract is itself likely a showcase for the dysfunction that is traditional contract drafting.

Second, revising a contract used in one transaction to fit another transaction is too often a haphazard process, as it’s difficult to climb back up the decision tree. You might end up incorporating deal points and concessions that have no bearing on the new transaction, and it’s all too easy not to address issues that aren’t reflected in whatever you’re copying.

And third, the process of revising a template or precedent contract to reflect a new transaction is relatively slow.

Automated contract creation allows you to escape these constraints. Because you’re creating templates to be used by many, you can take advantage of economies of scale: You can invest in technology that allows users to customize templates to reflect the key alternative scenarios. You can enlist subject-matter experts. And you can make sure that your templates say clearly and concisely whatever they need to say—an attribute that consumers in particular would presumably appreciate.

With Avvo Legal Forms, Avvo has made no attempt to do any of this. That’s what prompted my review and determined its tone. I’m inured to dysfunction in traditional contract drafting. I know what causes it, and I face it every day, so for the most part I no longer get worked up about it. But I find aggravating the idea of using automated contract creation not to effect change but instead to enshrine dysfunction.

In their response to my post, Avvo in effect threw up their hands and pleaded that they couldn’t possibly compete with bespoke law-firm work. So Avvo considers the traditional process for creating contracts to be an unattainable ideal rather than the source of dysfunction that it actually is. It’s surprising that a company that presumably sees itself as part of the new legal economy should set the bar so low.

The Upshot

Getting serious about automated contract creation doesn’t have to be expensive. But that might not be feasible if, like Avvo, you plan on allowing people to use it for free or if, like Avvo, you plan on putting 200 templates—yes, 200—on your system in less than a year. I suggest that when it comes to automated contract creation, you do it properly or you don’t do it at all.

I leave the final word to Marc Lauritsen (@marclauritsen), who has way more experience than me in automated contract creation. Here’s something Mark tweeted last week regarding Avvo Legal Forms:

(If you want someone else’s take on all this, I suggest you check out this post by Casey Flaherty.)

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.