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Need a Lawyer? The Web Is a Good First Stop

 By Amy Hackney Blackwell (amyblackwell@wwwiz.com)

          Need a lawyer? Try the Web first. The conservative legal profession is gradually joining the modern age, erecting Web sites, and putting a new spin on the practice of law.

There are a number of sites that provide legal information and services. Most have a lot of stuff for free; many offer users the opportunity to chat with a lawyer online without charge. Some sell legal forms, such as simple wills, for a low price–a good option for someone who doesn't have a complicated estate. Many of them have extensive databases of legal information, useful to both laypeople and to lawyers who want to do legal research without paying for Lexis or Westlaw. Almost all legal information sites can refer users to actual attorneys. The Web can't provide answers to all legal problems, but already it has made the law much cheaper and more accessible to the public–a good thing, as long as people get professional help when they need it. Here are some of the most valuable legal sites:

Findlaw is one slick site. It's got everything–information on state and federal law, international law, legal news and referral services for lawyers and legal organizations. Legal professionals can advertise or search for jobs. The Cyberspace Law Center provides a surprising amount of information on this new and unformed area of the law. The Supreme Court gets special treatment, and there are sections for consumer law and business law. There is also the Findlaw Fleece Referral Program; if 10 of your friends join Findlaw, then you get a free Findlaw fleece jacket. This site is valuable for both lawyers who want to do legal
research for free and for laypeople who just want their questions answered.

 Lawyers.com, owned by the giant legal publisher Martindale-Hubbell, is another nice site. Along with running regular articles on general interest legal topics, it has a section on hiring a lawyer–including an article on deciding whether you actually need one. Customers can ask questions using the Ask a Lawyer feature; questions and answers are posted on the site (anonymously) and users can search the archives for previous postings. Articles on specific legal topics are clear and concise, perfect for a user who wants a quick explanation of a complex issue. The site also lists profiles of attorneys all over the world–Martindale-Hubbell's best-known publication is its directory of attorneys–and links to many attorneys' homepages. Lawyers.com is not an all-purpose site for lawyers looking for information, but it does provide links to other legal resources on the Web.

 USlaw.com has a nice-looking Web site. It provides information on a huge variety of legal topics that would be of interest to the general user. Its gimmick is lawyer chats–a user can chat online with a specialist lawyer and ask specific questions. The best thing is, it's free. However, the site's lawyers are not certified by the bars of every state, so they won't know all the nuances of different state laws. The site will also refer customers to lawyers in their areas if they need customized or complicated help. The site publishes free email newsletters on all its legal topics: bankruptcy, debt and credit, domestic relations, immigration, trusts and estates, etc. The library contains extensive collections of articles on various topics; most of them are well written and easy to understand. The site also sells books on different legal topics for those who want more in-depth information.

Law.com is fine for lawyers and other legal professionals, including students, but not so useful for the lay user. The consumer Self Help Law Guide is not the easiest thing to use, and it doesn't provide as much information as one would like. The Attorney Law Guide is more useful, particularly for attorneys who need to research laws in other states, but the legal resources at Findlaw are better. Law.com has a section targeted at financial and business professionals who need to keep abreast of the latest legal developments affecting their industries, which isn't bad. The special section for law students is fun and full of entertaining articles from student papers all over the country. The legal research portion of the site has good links to federal and international law, but the link explaining how to do legal research only turns up a page with more links to articles on other sites. Why not tell us in that window instead of making us click all around? Law.com doesn't sell forms itself, but it does list a number of links that provide forms for free or for sale; this probably could be done faster on a search engine, but the list could come in handy.

If you want to talk to a real, live, lawyer licensed in your state, try LegalAdviceLine. This site doesn't yet have lawyers for all 50 states, but hopes to be 100% operational by the end of 2000. The price for talking to a lawyer is $30 per call, regardless of how long the call lasts–quite a bargain if you need individualized help. LegalAdviceLine also sells legal documents customized for the user and specific to each state. These cost $29.95 each. Unfortunately, customers using any system other than MS Windows (including all Macintoshes) are unable to access the forms software, which is written in VBScript. Let's hope the site fixes this problem soon. LegalAdviceLine's appearance also leaves something to be desired; in a world of slick Web sites, this one looks decidedly amateurish.

Lawstreet aims to be ``the best and most recognized legal Web site on the Internet." It has a way to go before it reaches that goal. The site has two entrances, one for lawyers and one for layfolks. Lawstreet allows users to search state law databases for information for free. One inconvenient feature is that the customer must enter a county before being allowed to browse the topics–most laws are not specific to a
county, so this is generally shouldn't be necessary. Most of the topics list their information in the form of short articles, which are pretty informative, though the number of topics is limited. The Lawstreet Journal publishes various legal news stories, though they don't update their listings
very often. Lawyers can use the site to download legal documents for a low price ($9-$15), though this service is not advertised in the section for general customers. Lawstreet.com is not a bad site, but it is hard to see what it can do for a user that one of the bigger, more established sites can't do better.

MyCounsel, recently launched by a team of lawyers in Boston, claims to provide online solutions to legal problems anytime, anywhere. The site's most valuable feature is its compilation of articles on legal topics written by lawyers and legal editors; most of them are actually easy to understand and go beyond the surface-scratching that many legal sites provide. The Stanley search feature allows users to type questions that will lead them to pages on the site that will provide the most appropriate answers. The site can also hook up users with lawyers in their areas, though as with all referral services, it is the client's responsibility to make sure the recommended lawyer is qualified for the job. MyCounsel is planning to introduce law communities soon, presumably to let people going through a legal problem talk to others who have experienced the same thing.

 There are several other legal information sites worth noting. The National Law Net has a long and useful list of legal links. Cornell's Legal Information Institute has lots of handy information. Lawguru, run by a small California firm, claims to be one of the most popular legal sites on the Web. The site provides links to over 400 sites for legal research. It has
FAQs for California law and an attorney network for attorneys who want to use the site to get exposure. It's a nice-looking, if small-scale site.

 The world apparently has a huge need for legal services, if the current growth of the legal profession is any indication. Law on the Web is a new wrinkle in a very old field; by making esoteric topics and unreasonably expensive services accessible to the public, legal Web sites are entering a market that is more than ready for them. There is plenty of room for more development in this area, such as specialty legal Web sites and better treatment of individual states' laws, but the stuff that's up already is pretty good.


Amy Hackney Blackwell is an attorney and a writer in Greenville, SC. Her legal interests include cyberspace law and international environmental issues. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Parachutist, Healing Retreats and Spas, the ABA Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She also does commentaries for public radio. She has lived and worked in Japan and Europe, and speaks Japanese, French, and German.

 

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