First it was personal finance, then medical experts and now the legal profession is feeling the Internet howling at its door.
In recent weeks, a Maryland start-up company called USLaw.com and California-based FreeAdvice.com have launched live lawyers chatting online as a free service to consumers--paid attorneys answering legal questions from anyone who logs onto those sites.
They join a growing number of Internet law ventures trying to make money by helping people get instant information online from a profession often considered less than consumer-friendly. Law industry sources say other "live-lawyer" sites are in development, with hopes of making money by, for example, selling ads, legal forms or enhanced listings for lawyers.
"People are intimidated by the legal process," said USLaw.com chief executive Neal B. Simon. "They think it's too costly and time-consuming. We provide people with the ability to easily understand legal issues and get solutions to their problems."
But experts say USLaw.com and competitor FreeAdvice.com are treading on delicate terrain as they try to restrain their lawyers from giving specific legal advice, a move that regulators might consider the actual practice of law.
If the online lawyers were practicing law, the state bar associations have a host of rules the lawyers have to follow--such as dispensing advice only in states where they are licensed. To get around this, the legal chat companies are training their lawyers to keep their answers general--pointing people to resources and explaining the legal process, for example.
"I think it will be very difficult for them to stay on the no-legal-advice side of the line and give useful information," said Alan B. Morrison, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group.
Morrison supports the idea of lawyers online but questions the usefulness of the information they can dispense. "I would imagine some of the bar associations are going to get pretty aggressive about monitoring this," he added.
William E. Hornsby, staff counsel of the American Bar Association's legal services division, said the Internet has the potential to improve public access to justice, "but the downside is quality control." He questioned whether the disclaimers posted online by the free legal advice sites would be sufficient to avoid establishing an attorney-client relationship.
USLaw.com, which went online a few weeks ago from Silver Spring, said the lawyers in its directory are screened by LawCorps Development Co., the Washington-based temporary legal staffing firm that is providing the lawyers. USLaw.com has 13 full-time employees in addition to six lawyers doing chats for up to 13 hours a day. USLaw.com has backing from some of the same investors behind AmericasDoctors.com, which has doctors answering questions online.
USLaw plans to move to around-the-clock chat in January and have 100 lawyers online by summer, Simon said.
The Web site also offers a free law library and interactive law forms that ask people questions and create customized documents such as wills. The company is compiling a legal directory that will offer free basic listings to lawyers and sell one premium listing in each legal specialty for a geographic area.
FreeAdvice.com, by contrast, charges lawyers $195 a year for basic listings. It is going slower with free chat. Only two lawyers were answering questions during the 42 hours it was live this week, because it is trying to monitor the quality of the advice, said chief executive Gerry Goldsholle.
James L. Thompson, president of the Maryland State Bar Association, was skeptical that lawyers can give meaningful guidance online without straying into the unauthorized practice of law: "It doesn't pass the laugh test."
But Thompson also said the legal community faces much larger issues as the Internet breaks through so many boundaries on which many regulations are based. "I'm convinced the legal profession needs to readdress its position on the Internet," he said.
Stephen Gillers, professor of legal ethics at New York University's School of Law, said he, too, considers it "not realistic at all" that lawyers chatting online can hold back from crossing into the unauthorized practice of law. Yet he does believe legal information is a valuable commodity that will find its way into real-time transmission online.
"I think it is going to happen big-time," Gillers said. "If it's done right and is respectful of legal ethics and professional rules, it could be a real service."
Business: Free online service that helps people get legal information and explains the legal process
Based: Silver Spring
Launched: November 1999
Employees: 13 full-time workers plus six part-time lawyers
Chief executive: Neal B. Simon
Investors: Started as a joint venture among LawCorps Development Co., Venture Consultants LLC and Dispute Resolutions LLC.
Web address: www.uslaw.com
Live chat available: Noon to 11 p.m.; will be operating 24 hours a day in January.
*USLaw.com is the operating name of AmericasLawyer.com