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Three weeks after ethics rule changes allowed N.J. lawyers to advertise on the Internet, Wilentz Goldman & Spitzer became the first firm in the state to provide live, interactive programming over the World Wide Web. Last Tuesday morning, the Woodbridge firm debuted “Your Legal Rights,” a series of weekly law shows open to anyone who clicks on a disclaimer and provides an e-mail address. The inaugural hour-long program, “What You Should Know About Divorce,” featured family law practitioner David Wildstein answering viewers’ typed-in questions, such as how long a divorce takes (it depends), what it costs (ditto), the grounds for divorce (varied), whether moving out of the marital home can affect custody (yes) and the effect of fault on alimony (none). More than 300 people signed on to watch, says the interviewer, Wilentz partner Christopher Placitella, who is the moving force behind www.wilentztv.com. The firm plans to build a studio by summer but for now does the shows in a converted conference room. Placitella says he got the idea for the live shows from using streaming video to read real-time transcripts of out-of-state depositions and to add questions. Last summer, Wilentz began producing seminars sent by e-mail links to co-counsel around the country. That grew into weekly video updates — “mass tort minutes” — that now reach about 2,600 lawyers, Placitella says. He also started taping consumer updates and e-mailing them to clients and others. Another Web site — www.bigclassaction.com– recently started linking to the updates, expanding potential viewership to 120,000, says Placitella. Last week’s 10-minute update covered a dozen topics, including diet-drug litigation, asbestos, silicone breast implants, tobacco, farmed salmon and mad cow disease. ETHICS AND NETIQUETTE There was never an ethics rule against Internet advertising by lawyers, but the sweeping revisions to New Jersey’s ethics rules that took effect on Jan. 1 expressly authorize it. RPC 7.2, which governs attorney advertising, was amended to include Internet or other electronic media. George Kenney, chairman of the state Supreme Court’s Committee on Attorney Advertising, says Internet advertising must meet the same standards as other media. For instance, Wilentz’s online claim that it is “the largest law firm in America representing victims of dangerous and defective products” must be factually correct. To ensure observation of ethics rules and “netiquette,” Placitella turned to partners Frederick Dennehy and Bret Harris. They favored a presentation that avoids specific fact situations in favor of “general information about what people could expect and what the court processes were,” says Harris, adding that the show makes clear that it’s New Jersey lawyers speaking about New Jersey law. They also drafted a disclaimer — which viewers must acknowledge for access to the live show — making it clear that that no attorney-client relationship is being created and that no legal advice is being provided: “only general educational information.” The disclaimer also notes that the information may be specific to the featured speaker’s jurisdiction and that the law is subject to change. “They’re covering themselves beautifully” with that language, says Seton Hall University School of Law ethics professor Michael Ambrosio. Even the best disclaimer must be used to be effective. The show that aired live last Tuesday could, by Thursday, be seen as an “on demand” program, along with prerecorded shows, without any disclaimer. The glitch will be fixed, says Placitella. He is also thinking of adding a second disclaimer for those who submit questions. Lest those who provided their e-mail addresses be fearful of spam, the firm will ask them whether they are open to receiving further communications. “We’re trying to build good will,” says Placitella. Besides the live and archived shows, the Web site features the weekly consumer alerts and instructions about obtaining a case evaluation and speaking with a firm representative by phone or computer. Separate from the consumer-oriented features are sections devoted to clients and co-counsel, which are password-protected. The client section provides case updates and access to documents and includes a live show on the first Monday of every month. For now, it focuses only on mass tort clients but there are plans to expand. Co-counsel and referring counsel can find case-specific information and forms, as well as how-to videos to help them polish skills and use technologies. Wilentz may be the first law firm to go live with streaming video. “I don’t know that any other law firm has tried this,” says Nathalie Daum, president of the Legal Marketing Association of Glenview, Ill., and national marketing manager for Quarles & Brady, a law firm based in Milwaukee. Perhaps the most similar format is “Law Journal” of Allentown, Pa., a live weekly television show since 1990 that, in October 2002, started making already aired shows available online at www.lawjournaltv.com. The show, broadcast over WFMZ in the Philadelphia area, has no connection with the New Jersey Law Journal, although a corporate sibling, The Legal Intelligencerof Philadelphia, is a sponsor and writes regularly about its programming. Christopher Naughton, a former assistant prosecutor in Union County who owns and hosts the show, says it reaches three million homes in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware and has about 50,000 viewers. About 1,000 to 3,000 visitors go to the Web site each week. Firms without the resources of a Wilentz, Goldman can sponsor the show, appear as guests and post their taped appearances on their own Web sites or link to the “Law Journal” site. Alan Polonsky, whose Audubon firm, Polonsky & Polonsky, is a sponsor, has appeared on the show regularly to discuss Social Security issues. He calls it “good publicity,” but says “more attorneys watch it than the general public.” Placitella says that about 10 to 20 firms are joining with WilentzTV to form a national network to provide live legal programming over the Internet. Two of them are Philadelphia’s Anapol, Schwartz, Weiss, Cohan, Feldman & Smalley, and Motley Rice of Mount Pleasant, S.C. He says he expects a second firm will start live Webcasts in March or April.

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