Need a Lawyer? The Web Is a Good First Stop
By Amy Hackney Blackwell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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:
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.
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
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.
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