Not so long ago, handling legal matters such as wills, immigration cases, and divorce required face-to-face visits with lawyers.
Thatís no longer necessarily true. An increasing number of Web sites sell legal advice. Online users can talk to lawyers and paralegals via e-mail, download forms and documents, and use client-lawyer directories and matchmaking services. Some sites provide free information, but often as an enticement to buy services.
Legal-services Web sites claim to be cheaper and more accessible than traditional lawyers. Rather than offer full-service consultations for hourly fees, many Web sites deal with specific legal matters for flat fees. However, people should use online legal services with great caution, experts say.
"There are pluses and minuses to the services," says Catherine Lanctot, a professor at Villanova University Law School. "They are cheaper, and lots of low-income people would feel more comfortable spending less money for lower-priced service. But clients may get hurt if they think they are getting more than they actually do," says Ms. Lanctot, author of the Duke Law Journal article "Attorney-Client Relationships in Cyberspace: The Peril and the Promise."
She adds that the business model remains unproven. "A number of legal dot-coms have come and gone," she says.
Online legal services could eventually redefine the traditional relationship between lawyers and their clients, experts say. Brick-and-mortar attorneys typically offer a full range of services within their areas of expertise. They prepare and file court documents, give legal consultation, handle trials, and offer other advice as needed.
By contrast, many Internet lawyers provide "unbundled" services, meaning they handle only portions of cases. According to the American Bar Association Web site, some courts, judges, and lawyers have reacted negatively to this approach. Web-based services are less likely than in-the-flesh attorneys to fully explain the legal process and see it through to its logical conclusion, they contend.
Another fear: Practicing law online could compromise the privacy of communications between attorneys and clients. "That relationship is very sacred," says Angel Gomez, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. "Going online could sacrifice some of that because you donít know who the other person is and who else has access to the information you provide."
Legal Web sites donít claim to be a substitute for attorney visits. In fact, some sites include disclaimers stating that users arenít forming an attorney-client relationship. State laws and regulations governing the sites either donít exist or vary nationwide. The upshot: "Itís not clear yet what the legal and ethical obligations of the Web sites are to clients and vice versa," says Ms. Lanctot.
If you are thinking about using an online legal services Web site, you should keep in mind the following points: •Know who is giving the advice. Is the person answering your legal questions a lawyer, law student, teacher, or paralegal? Ask for legal credentials and check references. "Be especially careful that the person who purports to be a lawyer is licensed in the state where you need service," says Mr. Gomez.
•Use free legal Web sites to educate yourself about a pending legal matter. The strategy can save time and money if you subsequently visit an attorney, says Ms. Lanctot. You could learn that you donít need an attorney at all, or that you require face-to-face legal consultations.
•Donít use online attorneys for complex legal matters, such as disputed divorces and criminal cases.
•Most legal Web sites have disclaimers. Read them and ask yourself if you would hire an attorney who posted such a disclaimer on the office wall.
|Where to go for legal services on the Web|
There is no shortage of Web sites that offer legal services. Many claim they can help ordinary people perform routine paralegal and business procedures.
Some sites specialize in selling legal forms, while others provide them free, usually as a way to attract customers to for-fee services. Examples include www.DontNeedALawyer.com, www.AllAboutForms.com, www.FindForms.com, www.Legaldocs.com, www.USLegalForms.com, and www.LegalZoom.com.
Many Web sites dole out free basic legal information, including www.ItsLegal.com, www.LawExpress.com, www.USLaw.com, www.FindLaw.com, www.FreeAdvice.com, www.Nolo.com, www.Lawyers.com, and www.LawOffice.com.
You can pay a lawyer to answer questions or handle parts of cases at www.AskALawyer.com, www.AsktheLawyers.com, www.ImmigrationLaw.com, www.LegalGrind.com, www.LegalAdviceline.com, www.lawexpress.com, and www.lawopinion.com.
Directories and lawyer-client matchmaking services include www.LawyerShop.com, www.AttorneyLocate.com, www.AttorneyPages.com, www.AttorneyFind.com, www.AttorneyNet.com, and www.LawOffice.com.
Potential clients can post their legal problems and invite bids from lawyers at www.AttorneysBid.com, www.FeeBid.com, and www.LegalMatch.com.