The Legal Community Meets the Internet

By Bencivengo, Glen | Online, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Legal Community Meets the Internet


Bencivengo, Glen, Online


The Internet has affected many professions, even such a backward-looking and tradition-bound profession as law. Lawyers as a group tend to be conservative and somewhat resistant to change. Their training in law school emphasizes precedent and authority. (For a clear and lighthearted explanation of the doctrine of stare decisis, see Ron Borlase's essay [www.law.uh.edu/guides/jellyfish.html] on the topic.) Change is usually incremental and made cautiously. Legal argument is replete with citations to cases, statutes, and regulations. Exceptions to established doctrine are made slowly. It is the rare lawyer who will go out on a limb, for law schools teach students the dangers of embarrassing themselves before their clients or judges.

The Internet has changed all this for most lawyers. Like it or not, many legal practitioners are altering the way they practice their profession. Indeed, they are forced to by the expectations of the marketplace and the competitive, adversarial nature of their work. Clients expect e-mail replies to their questions; other lawyers are marketing their services on the Internet; adversaries are electronically filing appeals; young associates are finding cases, statutes, regulations, and legal forms on the Internet without cost. The practice of law may be a profession, but it is also a business, and like any businessmen, lawyers must worry about their competition. In short, "If my old law school classmate is using the Internet," a lawyer may worry, "so must I."

The Internet's impact on the legal profession is enormous and constantly growing, much as legal doctrines that evolve over the years. But changes wrought by the Internet are faster than most changes to legal doctrine and in many ways more amorphous. It is difficult for the observer to grasp all the changes. Articles abound--both in the professional literature and on the Internet itself--about how this relatively new medium of communication and information has affected a centuries-old profession. In order to come to grips with this, I will concentrate on certain developments: e-mail communications, advertising and marketing, and available research materials. Ethical and malpractice issues are of vital concern to the legal community and will also be covered.

COUNTING LAWYERS ONLINE

It is difficult to find reliable, current statistics concerning the number of lawyers and law firms on the Internet. A recent survey done by the Alaska Bar Association ("A Survey Says Most Lawyers Are Online," Alaska Bar Rag, v.25 [January/February 2001]: p. 1) revealed that out of 518 respondents, only 45 attorneys were not connected to the Internet. Most (404) used the Internet for research purposes. The ABA's Legal Technology Resource Center conducted a survey in 1999 and found that 99 percent of the lawyers who responded had access to the Internet from their law firms or corporate legal departments ("Firm Internet Access Nears 100 Percent," Oregon State Bar Bulletin, v. 61 [October 2000]: p. 7). The survey further revealed that 71 percent of large law firms and 32 percent of small firms had a home page on the Web, up from 55 percent and 11 percent just a year earlier. In a Pitney Bowes Management survey of large firms done as long ago as 1996 [www.itmc.com/internet2.htm], 74 percent of the respondents sta ted that the Internet played a crucial role in the way lawyers practiced law. Over 80 percent of the larger firms surveyed had access to the Internet. Of those, 51 percent used the Internet for professional reasons and 38 percent believed that the most important benefit of the Internet was e-mail.

In 1997, the ABA conducted a survey of both large and small firms (Steven Keeva, "Law Firms Plug In: Both Large, Small Practices Catch Up with Business in Embracing Technology," American Bar Association Journal, v. 83 [July 1997]: p. 100). The large-firm survey identified trends in the 500 largest law firms in the United States, while the small-firm survey studied technology use in private firms with 20 or fewer lawyers.

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