Revisiting online information sources for lawyers

When lawyers first discovered the Net, there was all kinds of talk about how it would transform the practice, and perhaps even the profession itself.  Surely the Net has wrought major changes in terms of efficiency gains, how transactions take place, how disputes (might be) resolved, the nature and extent of evidence, how trials are conducted, and many other ways. 

I’ve noticed recently that some of the sites that provide legal information online have begun to take major steps forward in terms of usefulness.  Of course, the biggies — Lexis and Westlaw — have been online for some time now, and the use of hypertext links in the cases and articles and other information makes a huge difference.  Cornell’s LII provides an astonishingly impressive, and quickly updated, store of US statutes and related information (other law schools have good reason to be jealous of this resource!).  What has yet to be solved, though, is the definitive resource for a solo practitioner or small firm that needs a way to sort through information of varying qualities online. 

Some of the original legal websites — Nolo (mostly tries to sell you books and software, with some helpful FAQs on big topics), findlaw (run by some very clever people, provides a lot of links to a lot of places, and has some good cases uploaded), and gigalaw (great, original content on Internet law and related matters, with some useful primers on commonly-discussed but poorly understood topics like copyright) — each provide some very helpful information on specific topics and have gotten a lot more useful over the past few years.  A small company in Massachusetts called LeapLaw, founded by a senior paralegal at a big law firm and whose system I’ve had a chance to look at recently, is on just this track: focused on providing targeted information to a transactional lawyer or paralegal who turns to the Net looking for a specific question answered or form provided.  My guess is that the service that succeeds in addressing this need will end up being a paid subscription model, rather than a free service supported by advertising, but I might be wrong (given the resurgence of the ad model and the recent results of Yahoo! and what we all presume about the profitability of the still-privately-held-but-not-for-long google).  I’d guess that there are many others working on it, given that anyone who has searched for good legal information online usually ends up wasting loads of time and coming up with forms or advice that’s off-the-mark or out-of-date.  Maybe it’ll be a weblog that succeeds.  (Anybody else have favorites on this front?)

I have high hopes yet for the Net’s impact on the practice of law.

3 thoughts on “Revisiting online information sources for lawyers

  1. John,

    I do not have has high a hopes for you that the net is going to do as much to move the law, or least the delivery of legal services to average people, not huge entities served by the large law firms.

    I say that based on two factors. First, like it or not two companies control the law space, Thomson’s West Group and Reed Elseviers’s LexisNexis. Those two companies lack innovation, at least as compared to companies that have brought so much efficiencies through technology like Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo, Google etc. They are filled with people who are afraid to take big chances. The companies lack an environment where everyone is rewarded based on the ideas and excitement they create.

    Those two companies like the status quo – they are making money and for many products they can sell based on the strength of their brand, not the strength or value of their products. Lawyers buy conservatively and do not change suppliers easily so West can sell a $40,000 Web site that not only is designed poorly and does not work for marketing but should have cost about $7,500.

    Finally on those two companies, they do not want to bite the hand that feeds them. If they improve the efficiency of the delivery of legal services lawyers may see that as a threat to billing on their high hourly rates.

    Let me use a concrete example of the above. I contacted the CEO of one of these companies about the possibility of introducing to a test market of lawyers a Web based system where things could be streamlined for simple legal services such as the preparation of a will, the formation of a corporation – the kinds of things you see forms on sites Legal Zoom et al. The concept would be consumers getting free legal info on a lawyer’s Web site about a will, estate planning etc and the benefits of having a will. Consumer decides to do will, puts in credit card, puts in the 6 or 7 variables (that now take an hour meeting for the lawyer to get), the will is prepared with draft going to lawyer and consumer, consumer schedules time to come in to law office to review, discuss, sign. The lawyer pays an annual license fee or per use fee for the service which is hosted for them. Consumer who could not have afforded will gets one done by lawyer they talk with for $200 and lawyer gets client for future work and does not lose money by doing will. CEO, though believing this is the way the way the world is going, did not see lawyers demanding service in any numbers – gee, that is not a surprise.

    Second point is that lawyers are not innovative or tech savvy as a group. They believe accessing the Internet, using email, using word etc is using technology. They do not understand efficiencies of technology and do not want to spend money on it. Most small and medium size firms are controlled by partners in their 50’s and beyond so through no fault of their own did not grow up using technology. They also are more interested in being 7 or 8 years from retirement than advancing technology for younger players in their firm. Just sit around any partners meeting or talk to any younger partner and you’ll find this almost comical.

    God nows I see the Internet and technology as the great equalizer for the average American but I sure wish things would get a little more equal faster.

    – Kevin

  2. I agree with Kevin’s point that the Lexis/Westlaw monopoly has impeded the progress of technology in the law. (Coincidentally, I posted on this just yesterday at this post at http://www.myshingle.com) But the problem isn’t just the power of these companies in today’s market – it’s that our profession permits these companies to continue to dominate through mechanisms such as (a) allowing Lexis and Westlaw reps to teach how to use these services in law schools; (b) providing free Lexis and Westlaw in law schools so that students become “addicted” to these services and can use no other and (c) adherence to blue book/reporter citations (when no one uses law books anymore!) rather than allowing uniform citation so that competitor services can gain more use. As I wrote in an article 4 years ago (the link is embedded in the above post that I cited), it is possible to use the Internet to research for free – many sources are readily available and many attorneys are familiar with them. But few will do this because of the perception that Lexis and Westlaw have been able to convey about their superiority. Thus, while it would be nice to have a comprehensive guide for solo and small firm lawyers to use as a Lexis alternative, I don’t know whether it would be used enough to be profitable.

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