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I've been injured—can you help me?" This question used to require an actual face-to-face office visit or at least a telephone call. Today, you may never have to meet with or speak to a person, or even agree to be their attorney for an attorney-client relationship to be created.

Search the phrase "free legal advice" on the Internet. In 13 seconds, using, I found 412,000 web sites, chat rooms and message boards all related to legal advice. Such creatively named sites such as, and offer free answers to legal questions. The operators of these sites include law firms, law schools, legal aid agencies and bar associations. The problem is that the search retrieves sites for a former court reporter offering legal advice, as well as for fictional Homer Simpson's attorney, Lionel Hutz, who dispenses legal advice from a Magic 8 Ball.

Magic 8 Ball Says, "Outlook Good"

Having an Internet presence today is not only beneficial but has become a necessity. It offers a new forum to reach clients and potential clients through cost-effective communication and marketing. With approximately 64 million Internet users in the United States, your firm can stand out as a law firm in tune with today's consumer. As more individuals and companies create their own web sites, they will be looking for counsel who understand their needs and problems.

"You have to get yourself on the Internet" says Don Tapscott, author of "The Digital Economy" in an online interview with Entrepreneur Magazine Online. "Five or 10 years ago, managers joked, 'Sure, I use a computer. It's on my secretary's desk.' Today, comments like that don't get a laugh. Instead, people think 'What a loser!' More and more, the decision to not use technology has become irrational—a fact that's keenly understood in the developing world." Having a presence on the Internet may have become a necessity for a law firm, but does this necessarily mean you should provide free advice through a web site?

Magic 8 Ball Says,"My Sources Say No"

The legal profession has always been reticent to allow providing legal advice outside of the traditional attorney-client relationship. This position is not likely to change soon, even as technology continues to develop and evolve. The greatest risk may lie with the person seeking the advice. The Internet does not generally discriminate between valuable and useless information when a search is being conducted. If the law still requires a lawnmower manufacturer to warn against placing your hand or foot into the moving blades, how can we expect all people to distinguish between a legitimate legal web site and the Magic 8 Ball web site? In addition, the Internet does not necessarily provide the identity of the operator of the web site. When a person receives bad advice and relies on that advice to his or her detriment, where can he turn for a remedy?

What about the risk to the person providing the advice? The "free legal advice" issue is one of many Internet issues being addressed by courts and bar associations around the country. Other cyberspace concerns include: advertising rules associated with web sites, interstate commerce, unauthorized practice of law, confidentiality with respect to e-mail, chat rooms and message boards, and attorney-client relationships. A simple chat room response such as "I don't think you should file a lawsuit" could have serious consequences. The chatting lawyer may not have asked in what state the inquiring person resides. If it is a state in which the lawyer is not licensed, has he violated the other state's laws? If the person really has a valid case and should file a lawsuit, has the lawyer opened himself up to a malpractice suit? Was an attorney-client relationship ever really created? These are issues you really do not want to have to personally confront.

Catherine J. Lancetot, professor of law at Villanova University Law School, states, "Unregulated use of the Internet to dispense legal advice is fraught with peril, both for the unsuspecting layperson seeking such advice and for the lawyer who carelessly produces it. But it is important for the legal profession to remember that the peril arises not from the technology itself, but from the failure to harness its power appropriately." The Peril and the Promise, 49 Duke L.J. 147 (1999). The legal profession must develop guidelines that not only embrace this new technology but protect the public as well as the profession in their use of the technology.

Magic 8 Ball Says, "Concentrate and Ask Again"

Only a small number of bar associations across the country have issued opinions regarding providing legal advice across the Internet. The State Bar of California recently released a formal ethics opinion No. 96-0014 on attorney web sites. The comment period for this opinion expires on March 22, 2000. The opinion indicates that web sites are "advertisements" within the meaning of the rules but are not automatically deemed "solicitations" just because an e-mail contact address is provided. As an advertisement, the web site is subject to all the applicable rules regarding false, misleading and deceptive messages. The opinion also indicates that any legal web site may be subject to regulations in other jurisdictions and could even be considered to be the unauthorized practice of law in other jurisdictions.

Recent New York City opinions have indicated that using the Internet to practice law is analogous to conducting a law practice by telephone or facsimile machine and the obligations of a traditional attorney-client relationship would apply to the Internet relationship. The opinions advise lawyers to avoid providing or appearing to provide specific legal advice. They further advise that a disclaimer might not protect the attorney/firm against claims that an attorney-client relationship had been created.

The Philadelphia Bar Association has also issued an opinion that warns that lawyers must be cautious when providing information to individuals via the Internet. They must be concerned about truthfulness to third parties, the location of third parties and about violating the rules against solicitation.

Each jurisdiction is, or will be, developing rules for lawyers on the Internet. It has become an essential and necessary part of today's work environment, and law firms should not be afraid of having their name appear when someone is searching for legal help. To avoid any potential problems, however, your firm should take its time, do the required research, create an internal Internet policy and ensure that each employee understands that policy. With technology changing every day, a firm should stay current not only with the technology but with their bar association's rules regarding that technology. Before you answer the next legal question from the Internet, remember that Lionel Hutz, with his Magic 8 Ball, would probably tell you to "Try Again Later."

Journal Date: 
Saturday, April 1, 2000