There are plenty of ways "desk accessory" software can turn your $2,000 computer into a $15 calculator, a $12 alarm clock, a $10 Rolodex or a 69-cent note pad. But there also are ways software can turn your personal computer into a $200-per-hour lawyer.
There is a whole category of personal computer software that purports to answer simple legal questions without hiring a lawyer.
There are many programs to help write a basic will. These come in DOS, Macintosh, Apple II, Commodore, Amiga and Atari ST formats. To date, there isn't a program called "Wills for Windows," but that niche will be filled eventually. There also are programs that offer help with other everyday legal documents such as power of attorney and bill of sale.
A general caveat regarding computerized do-it-yourself lawyering: In any complicated case, a human lawyer at a desk is preferable to an electronic lawyer on a disk.
If you're facing a zillion-dollar negligence suit or a foreclosure on your house, you probably need more specific advice than you can get from the generalized help available in mass-market software form. If your estate is likely to exceed $600,000 -- the level where the federal estate tax kicks in -- you'd be wrong to write your own will with the help of a software program.
But for simple cases, an electronic attorney might do the job. Because this type of software generally ranges in price from $50 to $120, it's almost certain to be less expensive than a lawyer.
The prime publisher of legal software is Nolo Press (Phone: 415-549-1976). Nolo produces an excellent program called "WillMaker," with versions for DOS, Apple II and Mac. It has three parts: A chatty, rather friendly, manual that explains the basics; a computerized interviewer that asks you questions about your family and finances, among others; and a will-writing module that generates and prints your last will and testament, generally a document five to 10 pages long.
WillMaker knows a lot. You have to tell it fairly early what state you live in, so it can decide whether you're in a community-property state and apply the laws of your jurisdiction. It knows when you ought to establish a trust for your dependent children and it has some boiler-plate language for doing that. In the interview stage, it asks you if you'd like to forgive any outstanding debts, so you won't die without telling Aunt Rita to forget that $500 you lent her.
One controversial feature of WillMaker is that it won't let you change a word of the will it writes for you. Of course, you could copy the whole document on your word processor and then make changes, but WillMaker is specifically designed to discourage that.
A somewhat different approach is found in "Will Planner," a DOS program from Noetic Technologies (Phone: 303-770-2380). It has a slimmer manual than WillMaker, but it follows essentially the same system, with a question-and-answer session followed by the creation of a draft of your will. Will Planner assumes that you will dump its final text into your word processor for layout and printing. That means you can change text, too, if you dare risk the possible legal consequences.
If you want an electronic lawyer that is broader but less deep than these two, you might think about an interesting and easy-to-learn package called "Home Lawyer" from MECA (Phone: 203-222-9150).
Home Lawyer amounts to a personal computer version of those "form books" that give models of various legal documents and letters. The difference is this computerized version fills in the blanks for you. The program asks a series of simple questions, and then prints out its standard document with your information inserted.
Home Lawyer has two sample wills, one for single people and one for couples. These are simpler than the wills produced by the two programs m entioned earlier and there is less room for variations. You have to have a very simple estate to get by with the wills in this program.
Home Lawyer provides a similarly elementary approach to other problems. Its residential-lease form, for example, has nothing about a security deposit. You can add that yourself. But Home Lawyer's lease has other shortcomings. The program states a monthly rent, but does not list the full amount of rent due for the complete term of the lease. In some jurisdictions, that could make it hard for a landlord to win money from a tenant who moves out.
Other documents from Home Lawyer include a promissory note, a bill of sale, an employment agreement and a power of attorney. These are so simple they may actually be dangerous if there's anything at all complicated about your transaction.
Home Lawyer includes some useful form letters, including a request for a credit report and a complaint about a defective product. These are the best part of the package.