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.