Legal forms: Why you need them, and where to find them

December 17, 2013

5210In law school, you learn that certain tools and skills are important to being a successful attorney.

Examples of these tools and skills include oral and written advocacy, logical reasoning, and legal research resources.

But one tool that is essential to any practicing attorney – and one that is so often overlooked by law school curricula – is forms.

What do I mean by “forms?”

I’m talking about templates for filings and other legal documents.

Previously, I’ve touched on why forms are so important to small and solo attorneys, especially for newer ones:

the first time that you have to draft a certain kind of legal document – such as a subpoena, a will, or a proposed order – you’ll undoubtedly undergo that feeling of terror when you realize that you have no idea what this thing that you’re supposed to write should look like.

And it’s so important to have a robust body of forms available for your use because almost all attorneys need to draft legal documents on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, as I’ve already said, most law schools don’t teach courses on how to draft legal documents, so freshly minted attorneys without the benefit of counsel from a more experienced attorney will find themselves lost upon entering the profession.

And they are lost because legal documents are supposed to look a certain way, whether because codified local, state, or federal practice rules dictate, because of requirements by administrators of specific courts, or because the document fails to satisfy its function otherwise – but there isn’t an obvious way to discern how these documents are supposed to appear.

In my previous article (referenced earlier), the solution that I offered for new attorneys is to find a more experienced attorney to provide forms and the guidance on how to use them.  But that’s not the only source of forms for attorneys, inexperienced or not.

If you are a member of your local bar association, it will very likely make a variety of forms available for you to use (usually on its website).

Another related source of forms is found in CLEs.  In many courses on local law and practice, there are often written materials that contain sample forms and legal documents, and if the organization backing the CLE is high tech enough, they may even include a CD-ROM that includes forms in electronic form.  All of this is usually included in the price of the CLE itself, and you can almost always tell whether such materials will be distributed by checking in the program’s description before registering.

Of course, you don’t have to spend money to find useful forms to use in your own practice.  Quite often, especially in the case of larger jurisdictions, local court websites will make forms available for the purpose of those individuals representing themselves without an attorney.  But you always have to ensure that the forms you are using are correct and up-to-date.

Most of the time, these forms will be fill-in-the-blank, so I wouldn’t recommend submitting something like that as an attorney.  But they almost always provide a helpful example from which to draft your own. 

In some areas of law (estate planning being one such example), state statutes will explicitly provide an example of what a certain legal document should generally look like.  If you are drafting a document in a certain area of law, make sure to check the related statutes to see if the specific form is available for you to work off of, and to ensure that what you are drafting fully conforms to the law.

Finally, if you want something to actually compile your form together for you, Westlaw Form Builder has an extensive library of legal forms for many jurisdictions t hat is continuously updated, and, after filling in details for your specific matter, produces a completed product that looks pretty slick.

Whichever option you choose, though, just know that you do have options – and that your job as an attorney may be next to impossible if you don’t find an option that works for you.