You've run into a minor but persistent legal problem that keeps nagging you. If you don't deal with it soon, it could turn into something major. But the thought of tracking down a lawyer, dressing up, driving downtown and discussing the problem in a walnut-paneled office is enough to postpone action for another week or two.
That kind of thinking--and the fear of having to pay for high-priced legal services--has fueled demand for new ways to obtain legal information and advice. Many entrepreneurs are now turning to the Internet for a broad range of information. Some Web sites offer free advice on specific problems, along with easy ways to locate local attorneys who have the expertise to help. The sites are typically supported by advertising for law-related publications and merchandise. Some also include directories of lawyers, who pay for their listings.
The sites receive mixed reviews. Will Hornsby, a staff counsel for the American Bar Association (ABA) who focuses on delivery of legal services, contends legal sites are needed because they build public understanding of the law. "Sites that give information--generic or specific--contribute to people's ability to make educated decisions," Hornsby says.
He points to a recent ABA survey indicating one-quarter of moderate-income Americans ignore their legal problems, and another quarter solve them in ways that avoid the legal system. "The issue has shifted from whether people have access to a lawyer to how they can make legal decisions," he says. "Consumers generally lack information on how to make decisions and how to do a cost-benefit analysis." In that context, legal Web sites, similar to legal hot lines and self-help law books, are worthwhile because they put legal information in the public eye.
But the wide-open nature of the Internet also leads to the obvious downside of getting legal advice online: You don't know who's on the other side of the keyboard. As with any information gleaned from the Internet (or from books and magazines, for that matter), you have to decide whether the source is credible. If you're making legal decisions about your business based on the advice of an anonymous person whose fact-specific counsel appears on your screen, beware.
"The downside is catastrophic," says Dallas attorney Mark Ticer, chair of the Texas Supreme Court's Dallas Subcommittee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law. "One mistake can make a small-business owner lose everything he or she has." Ticer explains that entrepreneurs who post questions about their particular legal problems have no way of knowing whether the person who responds is licensed to practice law. "It's a hedge and a gamble," he says. "You can still get bad advice from a lawyer, but you [at least] have some confidence in their license.
"What are you going to do if these people give you the wrong advice? Who's going to make these people account for what they give you?"
Hornsby replies that Internet lawyers are subject to the same consumer-protection statutes and malpractice lawsuits as other lawyers. On the other hand, he notes, most Internet legal sites include disclaimers stating that their counsel is intended to be generic in nature. Says Hornsby, "It's presented in a marketplace where consumers are responsible for judging the advice they get."
Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.
Taking A Look
If you're still interested after these words of caution, these extensive legal sites all cater to a nationwide clientele:
- FreeAdvice.com, sponsored by Advice & Counsel Inc. in San Francisco, was called "the most useful consumer legal site" by USA Today. Users can click on such topics as business law, intellectual property or employment law, then on various subtopics for information in a question-answer format. A "Find a lawyer" button links to "AttorneyPages," a user-friendly directory of lawyers and law firms searchable by city and area of specialization.
- FindLaw.com, which began in 1995 as a list of Internet resources for law librarians, provides a wealth of resources for attorneys as well as for the public. The site affords access to Supreme Court cases, state laws, government regulations and a wide range of materials on legal topics prepared by bar associations, law firms, legal publishers and government agencies, as well as links to legal organizations, law schools, law firm Web sites and more. The site's Small Business Center offers a home office guidebook, step-by-step checklists, model business plans, forms and other legal documents, and an extensive legal dictionary. One link takes the user to free e-mail counseling on small-business problems from SCORE.
- Nolo.com Inc., the former Nolo Press, which has offered self-help law books since 1971, provides a legal dictionary and an encyclopedia with articles on a broad range of legal topics, including small-business concerns, plus a research feature that enables users to find federal and state laws on given topics. Although Nolo.com employs numerous lawyers to prepare its materials, the site has a distinctive antilawyer attitude (including hundreds of lawyer jokes and a "Shark-talk" word game). One feature, "Ask Auntie Nolo," invites users to describe specific legal problems to the site's plain-spoken advisor, who claims to cut through the legalese--but offers overly simplistic responses. For a fee, users can download form documents to customize themselves.
- Law.com provides a law dictionary, online legal research and answers to frequently asked questions on various topics. A self-help law guide provides definitions, general information and links to helpful Web sites, available publications and forms to be downloaded and customized. For those who still can't find answers, the Web site's staff can direct users to other Web sites.
Some law firms offer online legal advice for residents of their states. For instance, http://www.rapidlaw.com is the Web site for Houston attorney James H. Miller. The site invites Texas residents or those doing business in Texas to send questions by e-mail, which an attorney will answer within 48 hours for a flat fee of $35. Those who need fast answers can telephone and speak with an attorney over the phone for $3 per minute.
Is It For You?
Should business owners use these Web sites? It depends on what you need and how great your risk is. Internet attorney Christopher Wolf of Proskauer Rose LLP in Washington, DC, considers the sites a valuable resource for lawyers but dangerous for nonlawyers hoping to treat their own legal ills. "It's dangerous to engage in the practice of law without a license," he says. It's one thing to use sites to get educated so you know what to discuss with your attorney, he says, and another to think you no longer need a lawyer because you can learn what you need online.
Wolf especially warns against using legal documents found on the Internet. "They look OK but may be woefully inadequate," he says. "I'd want a lawyer skilled in the area to look them over."
Hornsby advises business owners to use sound judgment in evaluating legal sites. His advice:
- Look for a well-reasoned response.
- Check to see if collateral information is available.
- Determine whether responses are from a lawyer in your jurisdiction with expertise in the right field. Advice from another state may not be relevant.
- Be aware of the extent to which the site is selling services. "Do they offer advice that [traps] you into buying their products?" Hornsby asks. "It's important for consumers to find the most objective advice [to solve] their problems."
American Bar Association, http://www.abanet.org
Proskauer Rose LLC, firstname.lastname@example.org
Texas State Bar Office, (800) 204-2222