In the Spotlight

News & Features
Policing the Law
By Elizabeth Stawicki
September 5, 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Even a quick search of the Internet shows law-based Web sites are growing exponentially. That expansion is expected to continue, in large part because the Internet and the law, which is text-based, are a good fit. But Web-based law is largely unregulated and there are pitfalls for the unwary.

It's difficult to know who's operating them, or whether there are even lawyers involved.

MINNEAPOLIS ATTORNEY Don Nichols has practiced law for nearly 30 years and is astounded by the range of legal services offered on the Web.

There are three major categories of law on the Web: Legal information, such as court rulings; clearinghouses that will recommend local lawyers to help with a specific problem such as drawing up a will or adopting a child; and those Web sites that actually dole out legal advice for a set price.

University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Geoffrey Hazard is a nationally-recognized expert on legal ethics. He's also a consultant for, a Web site that puts consumers in touch with local attorneys who'll work for a flat fee. Its list includes personal injury help from $40 to criminal defense from $600. Hazard says the Web sites all have an upside for consumers; they're user-friendly which he says isn't always the case for their human counterparts.

"Lawyers like to look as though they're in control of things and that comes over to a lot of people as intimidating. Whatever way reduces the anxiety in getting a lawyer is helpful because people don't go to lawyers unless they're troubled about something," says Hazard.

Back in Minneapolis, Don Nichols, who's managing partner of Nichols, Kaster and Anderson sees the Internet shifting the work of attorneys away from the basics of drawing up legal documents to the more complex, strategy end of law.

"When you have a specific set of rules, and much of law is a set of rules, machines capable of processing those things better so at some point. I do think it will be possible for Web sites to practice better law than lawyers."

Minnesota's former state bar president Wood Foster agrees. Foster believes that in the future, attorneys will have to prove to the public that hiring a lawyer is more in a consumer's best interest than simply visiting a Web site.

"A prudent person could say, 'I'm going to talk to a lawyer, but first I'm going to have a very sophisticated document in my hand before I see a lawyer, I'm going to get this lease drawn by the computer and then I'm going to get the lawyer to sort of give it his blessing.'"

But unlike a licensed attorney, law-based Web sites are largely unregulated. It's difficult to know who's operating them.

"A client, who approaches the Internet now for legal information, faces a real risk that he'll be downloading information and it won't be accurate for their particular jurisdiction," says Michael Hertz, head of Law Help, a Web-based system that helps social workers in New York and courthouse clerks find lawyers for clients with specific problems.

"I think what you see is the legal information that's there for clients is not of tremendously high quality," says Hertz.

A subtle, but important, issue with legal-based Web sites is determining when a problem is too difficult for the Web. Many consumers may be tempted to try to solve a legal problem themselves only to find they're in much more serious trouble than they'd first supposed. It's a very real drawback according to Stacy Stearn, co-founded, a Web-based guide that boasts more than 50,000 legal information sites.

"When circumstances are special, people might not know that they're falling into that special category and they really do need the help of an attorney and they're not getting it," says Stearn.

Some legal experts advise consumers who use law-based Web sites to make sure that when downloading forms, the forms are for the proper state and jurisdiction; make sure the source of the form is credible. They also say to check if the site is created by attorneys, which adds credibility; if you're using the Web to find an attorney in your area, check those names with the lawyer's professional responsibility board for any disciplinary problems.

The experts stress, if the site won't give you information on its lawyers' credentials, run; credible referrals will be happy to supply that information on its group of lawyers. And above all, they say, if consumers have a problem that's serious enough to seek legal advice, it may be prudent to talk to an attorney the old-fashioned way, in an office.