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."
Other attorneys, however, question the wisdom of making legal assistance so accessible on the Web."It's not as simple as dropping an order like you would at Amazon.com and getting an answer back," says Albany, N.Y., attorney David Miranda, who chairs the New York State Bar Association's task force on electronic communication. "You need to actually talk to an attorney and make sure your interests are being represented in a proper manner.
At Freeadvice.com and USLaw.com, visitors can ask specific questions on legal bulletin boards or chat directly with attorneys. In September, USLaw's 15 staff attorneys responded to 7,500 "Ask-a-Lawyer" chat sessions. USLaw Chief Legal Officer Peter Jaffe says his company carefully posts disclaimers that inform users they're not getting specific legal advice that creates an attorney-client relationship.
Both sites consult with legal-ethics professors. They also discuss precautions with five other sites and the AARP Foundation that formed the Internet Law Roundtable earlier this year.
Regulators and bar association officials across the country admit they're not quite sure how to respond to the proliferation of legal Web sites. "It's just so new and it's happened so fast," says Lynne Liberato, state bar president in Texas. "The law is struggling to keep up."
While no federal guidelines regulate attorneys, state-government and bar-association guidelines strictly constrain the practice of law within state borders. Rules prohibit attorneys from offering advice in states where they're not licensed, ban advertisements that create unjustified expectations, and limit the fees lawyers may share with third parties.
To ensure compliance with advertising restrictions, Florida attorneys had to submit their Web sites to the state bar association for review until the state's Supreme Court rejected the practice last year.
In July, the Florida Bar Association released a new ethical opinion that says all rules of professional conduct apply in cyberspace. Florida Bar ethics counsel Cynthia Booth said the association will investigate individual attorneys based on public complaints, but will not surf the Web looking for violations.
But Catherine Lanctot, a law professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, says she fears consumers do not understand the legal distinction between generic information and specific advice.
"It's inevitable that there is going to be a problem with some advice that's been given, and someone is going to litigate this," she says. "The next big wave in legal dotcoms will be www.sue-your-lawyer.com."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society