A few months ago, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office dealt with a disciplinary case where a person ran an “inventor’s network” and handled more than 150 patent applications, even though he was not a registered patent attorney. Although the bar to becoming a registered patent attorney is high, the USPTO has very rarely gone after anyone for the unauthorized practice of patent law. And while this was perhaps an especially blatant case, it highlights the need to protect the public by enforcing the ethics rules that attorneys are required to live by.
Thanks to PLI for bringing up this disciplinary case.
To be clear, I am not a registered patent attorney. My undergraduate degree is in Linguistics so I’m not eligible to sit for the patent bar. I work with several trusted colleagues whenever my clients need assistance with patents.
But this issue brings to mind the concerns I have as a trademark attorney when I see people using LegalZoom and similar services to file their trademark applications.
I don’t think LegalZoom is doing anything illegal or unethical. They save people a lot of money compared to what most trademark lawyers charge.
Yet there is a serious but subtle risk that people who use LegalZoom or similar services will assume they are receiving “professional” guidance without realizing the limits of that guidance. The line where procedural guidance ends and legal advice begins is a very fuzzy one for virtually all non-lawyers. As a result, I believe that LegalZoom customers are likely to assume, despite all disclaimers to the contrary, that LegalZoom will exercise more judgment and expertise on their behalf than is actually the case.
I see this when I help someone who has filed for a trademark through LegalZoom and then needs assistance resolving a problem that develops. The problem will often be one that could have been avoided if a lawyer had guided the client through the application process. That was not the job LegalZoom was hired to do, but the client seems perplexed that the professional service that they paid for didn’t foresee or avoid the problem that arose.
I suspect that the same issues may arise when LegalZoom or similar document service companies form new LLCs, draft wills, or perform other services. The problems are just manifest more quickly for a trademark, which is examined by the USPTO a few months after filing.
There is a price to be paid for professional, personalized legal services. It is a much higher price than what automated or cookie-cutter service bureaus can offer. But these low-cost service bureaus need to be certain that customers understand what they are—and are not—receiving for their discounted fees.