they are licensed. To get around this, the legal
chat companies are training their lawyers to keep their answers generalpointing
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 Associations
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, Md.,
said the lawyers in its directory are screened by LawCorps Devel-opment 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 planned 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 recently, 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 doesnt 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.
Im convinced the legal profession needs to readdress its position on the
Internet, he said.
Stephen Gillers, professor of legal ethics at New York Universitys
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 its done right and is respectful of legal ethics and professional rules, it
could be a real service.
Copyright by The Washington
Post. Reprinted with permisssion.