Whole lot of lawyers on Web

Sunday, July 26, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Do you need a lawyer? The state of Texas thinks so.

Texas, or more specifically the Supreme Court of Texas, is investigating whether Nolo Press, a Berkeley, Ca., publishing company, is illegally practicing law by selling self-help legal books and software.

It's an interesting case, because Nolo is one of the top companies peddling legal advice on the Internet. And it has lots of competition.

The Nolo Web site (http://www.nolo.com) is a combination bookstore and online legal self-help site. There are many articles derived from books that Nolo publishes as well as a legal dictionary. Articles cover a wide gamut of issues from debt and bankruptcy to sexual harassment.

Nolo also sells software which helps you prepare a will or start a business without the aid of a lawyer.

That's what the state of Texas is all in a tizzy about. And it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Just as online trading brokerages are stealing the business of traditional stock brokers, legal information is moving to the Internet.

At Legaldocs (http://www.legaldocs.com) you can download legal documents and instructions for preparing them. Some are free, while the others cost $2.50 to $27.75.

The documents are what lawyers call "boilerplate" -- wills, leases, rental applications, deeds and such. And the site firmly denies that offering the forms "constitutes the practice of law or the giving of legal advice."

Self-help sites

These self-help sites are designed for personal law, that is, representing yourself in legal matters.

This is the message of Frederick Graves, a Florida attorney who created JurisDictionary (http://www.jurisdictionary.com), a site that purports to help the ordinary man cut through the legal gobbledygook. Unfortunately, the site is long on pep talk and short on nuts-and-bolts legal advice.

At the Law Office (http://www.thelawoffice.com), visitors can find basic legal information, and then post questions on the Ask A Lawyer bulletin board. The site also offers pages to refer visitors to attorneys.

Legal dot Net (http://www.legal.net) is a commercial site to help lawyers and clients find each other. The site maintains a registry of attorneys, articles about legal issues and an area called "Dear Esquire," where visitors can post questions and lawyers can respond (the site claims to screen the answers to make sure real lawyers are answering). The questions and answers are archived at the site. Apparently most of the visitors are not lawyers, since I saw lots of questions but few answers.

The Self Help Law Center (http://www.selfhelplaw.com), another site that offers legal advice and sells legal books, focuses on family law such as divorce and child custody.

In addition to these legal e-zines, many lawyers are going online to offer advice and advertise their expertise.

While thousands of lawyers have Web pages, some stand out. Michael T. Palermo, a Lexington attorney who specializes in estate planning, has created a Web site (http://www.mtpalermo.com) which advertises itself as a "crash course in wills and trusts." Anyone with a family, a bank account and a will should visit it.

"Virgins' a hoax

The big news on the Internet last week was the "Internet Virgins" hoax.

Remember the woman who had the birth of her son broadcast live on the Web June 16? Well, another couple, who claimed to be 18-year-old virgins, said they would consummate their love in August. Live on the Internet.

Their Web site (http://www.ourfirsttime.com) was jammed with visitors. Critics labeled the site pornography and attempted to shut it down.

Now it's being called a hoax.

"Mike" and "Diane" aren't teens, but actors. And on the big day, their script called for the couple to decide to wait for marriage.

A porno entrepreneur was somehow involved, but the entrepreneur spilled the beans when he found out there would be no X-rated show.

The creators of the site claimed purer motives, saying they wanted to promote safe sex and abstinence.

You can read about this silliness at http://headlines.yahoo.com/Full_Coverage/Tech/Internet_Virgins/

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewer@enquirer.com.