Can you trust online legal services?

Consumers are showing a growing interest in using websites for certain legal services, but the experience has been bumpy. Complaints around such services have risen 91 over the past year, according to an analysis prepared for CBS MoneyWatch by SiteJabber.com, which lets consumers discuss and rate their online experiences.

Among the legal issues people are routinely dealing with online: wills, patents, apartment leases and other basic documents. Popular sites for handling your legal affairs online include LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Nolo.

SiteJabber's review of more than 1,200 complaints reveals a number of things people should keep in mind as they consider going online for legal help.

"Consumers should tread carefully when using online legal services," SiteJabber co-founder Jeremy Gin said. "They can be a great way to save money and educate yourself, but they can also cause great harm when they fail consumers or are used improperly."

Here are problems SiteJabber users reported, along with tips about what to look for:

1. Legal documents you buy online may not hold up in court.Consumers reported completing documents online for things like changing their name, only to learn once they were in court that the paperwork they had paid for was invalid.

2. Online customer service can be poor. Online legal sites may sell a package of services, such as for building a family trust. But consumers complained that at some sites it was hard to find someone to speak with, and the people they did reach weren't of much help.

3. Legal sites may not file documents correctly.One SiteJabber user noted that an online legal service improperly processed a patent application, requiring additional fees and work to get it done right.

4. Online referrals to local lawyers may be no bargain. Some consumers complained that paying a finder's fee to match them with a lawyer in their area who supposedly would provide a special discounted rate turned out to ring false. Charges seemed high, while finding a local attorney was considerably less costly.

5. Some legal sites charge subscription fees.After using a service, some consumers were surprised to find recurring charges for things like asking legal questions online.

The upshot? Just because a site hangs out a shingle that says it provides legal services doesn't mean it's right for your purposes, or that the work is equivalent to what you'd get from a lawyer.

Still, online legal services can work well for some users. If you go this route, be sure to compare not only costs, but also the evaluations of consumers who have used them.

"Before using an online legal service, be sure to check local alternatives, research potential pitfalls, check reviews of the service, and if it's a critical matter, seek the advice of an attorney whom you can trust to help you navigate the online legal world," Gin said.

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.