Magazine article Insight on the News

Attorneys in Cyberspace

Magazine article Insight on the News

Attorneys in Cyberspace

Article excerpt

Some lawyers are riddled with anxiety about losing clients to electronic advisers. But critics claim litigants seeking free advice from online attorneys get what they pay for.

When asked to find "free legal advice" on the Internet, one speedy search engine tallied 330,000 Websites in less than a second -- dot-com domains such as findlaw, lawguru and lawline. Already, leading law firms are seeking to fend off inevitable competitive challenges from cyberspace legal eagles.

"The law is not competing as well as it did with other professions," says Erica Moeser, president of the National Council of Bar Examiners, based in Madison, Wis. "It seems to have lost some of its luster."

The Internet will force the practice of law to evolve at warp speed, many experts predict. It could mean an end to individual states' exclusive lock on licensing lawyers, a practice that provides little reciprocity. "The globalization of the practice of law should be viewed not in terms of whether or not it is desirable; rather, it should simply be viewed as inevitable," says Moeser.

Among other developments that could change the way law is practiced in America:

* Legislation that would limit lawyers' rights to mount federal class-action lawsuits, which often enrich attorneys while leaving millions of anonymous clients with nothing. Other legislation would topple a legal barrier that prevents clients who are part of a class-action from suing personally for damages.

* Continuing efforts from law school onward to increase racial and ethnic diversity throughout the legal profession. This has been the No. 1 priority for William G. Paul, who recently completed his term as president of the American Bar Association. "By 2050, when we have a society 50 percent people of color, a justice system 92.5 percent white won't work," says Paul, senior partner of an Oklahoma City law firm.

* Doubtful prognosis for quality as average scores on the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, decline among those who actually enter law school. The pool of applicants is shrinking so sharply that, to keep classes full, deans admit applicants whom they would not have chosen seven or eight years ago.

For decades, any chart depicting law graduates and new lawyers slashed upward like stocks on a bullish day. But while stocks continued to soar, the rise in graduates and new lawyers not only stopped but even began to decline in the mid-1990s.

In the 1990-91 school year, 152,685 would-be lawyers took the LSAT, the highest number ever. Last year, 104,236 took the test. At the same time, the number who passed and actually applied to law school dropped 28 percent, from 99,327 to 71,726. Despite these wild fluctuations, the number of law students admitted dropped only 2 percent from 1991 to 1999. And the number of those who got law degrees actually rose by 7 percent.

The job market for new lawyers was oversaturated, explains analyst Ed Haggerty of the Law School Admission Council in Philadelphia. "Some schools say that's why they cut class size -- they said they felt there were too many lawyers," notes Haggerty, who points out that the decline in applications to law schools coincided with a surge in the U.S. economy in which college graduates found high-paying jobs right out of school.

Other experts are forecasting a brighter future for the legal profession. …

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