Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Legal Advice Isn't Cheap. It's Free, and Online ; Regional Laws Limit Nationwide Web Services. but Their Basic Uses Build Them a Solid Case

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Legal Advice Isn't Cheap. It's Free, and Online ; Regional Laws Limit Nationwide Web Services. but Their Basic Uses Build Them a Solid Case

Article excerpt

When Paul Marston needed an attorney to incorporate his Kennebunkport, Maine, food shop, he went hunting for legal help on the Internet.

"I saved money and it was painless," says Mr. Marston, who estimates that using a lawyer provided by the AmeriCounsel.com Web site saved him $200.

A growing number of Internet sites offer free legal information, attorney referrals, and paid advice on everything from writing a will to getting a divorce to forming a small business.

Experts say the heavily regulated and highly decentralized legal profession will have trouble coping with Web sites offering legal services nationwide. The sites also challenge the traditional attorney-client relationship based on full-service advice and hourly fees.

Internet entrepreneurs promise they can make legal assistance more accessible for millions of Americans who currently don't trust lawyers - or can't afford their services. A 1994 American Bar Association study found almost half of moderate-income households reported a legal problem in the previous year, but less than half of them actually consulted a lawyer.

"We're opening up the law to a population that's not being serviced right now," says LawStreet.com vice president Joe Seldner.

Lawstreet.com and Findlaw.com offer easy-to-understand primers on consumers' most-common legal questions. Users can evaluate their own problems, decide whether they need a lawyer, and find referrals to local attorneys. Consumers can also look up local ordinances, download forms, and check the credentials of attorneys on sites maintained by bar associations, universities, and nonprofit groups.

Memphis, Tenn.-based immigration attorney Greg Siskind says clients arrive at his office better prepared after browsing the Web. "The sophistication of the consumer has increased dramatically," says Mr. Siskind, whose firm operates Visalaw.com. "It's a lot easier to work with clients who understand what we're doing."

A newer crop of sites created by law firms and new Web-only businesses move beyond generic legal information and offer individualized legal advice.

At Lawopinion.com, users pay $39.95 to submit a question and receive a legal opinion back within three days.

MyCounsel.com and AmeriCounsel.com diagnose users' legal problems before directing them to their networks of local attorneys. Users prepay fixed fees for chunks of service such as the review of an employment contract.

Both sites say they can provide lower-priced legal services by reducing an attorneys' marketing expenses, and more efficiently processing new clients, preparing documents, and billing.

"We should recognize this as an opportunity," says New York legal-ethics professor Stephen Gillers. "We may be able to create a market where clients who couldn't afford a lawyer get the advice they need at an affordable price. …

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