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For attorneys across the country, the Internet has clients surfing right to their doors, and finding a lawyer in Philadelphia is becoming as easy as a click of the mouse. Numerous legal Web sites have cropped up recently, many of which serve as virtual match-makers between attorneys searching for clients and clients in need of help. These sites come in various forms, including simple listings, auctions for legal counsel and referral services. Even the Philadelphia Bar Association is taking its 52-year-old referral service to the Web early next year. One new company, however, is taking it a step further. On June 1, USLaw.com, a provider of legal information on the Internet, launched an affiliate network of law firms and solo practitioners in the Philadelphia area. Potential clients can now be connected to an attorney who specializes in the area of their specific legal need just by visiting a Web site. USLaw.com is just the latest in this recent onslaught of lawyer listings on the Web, but unlike many other sites, USLaw.com limits the members in its network to 10 attorneys per zip code per practice area. This limiting of members allows clients to have access only to attorneys who have passed USLaw.com’s selective screening process, and it gives lawyers a greater opportunity for client generation, company officials said. “What we’re doing is targeting consumers,” said Julie Eidman, USLaw.com’s regional account manager for Philadelphia. “We’re not just a long list of lawyers.” USLaw.com, which is based in Silver Spring, Md., is using Philadelphia as a launch market for its affiliate network of lawyers. Networks are also currently being formed in Baltimore and Norfolk, Va. When visiting USLaw.com, consumers can search a list of participating law firms to see which lawyers specialize in their particular needs and are located in their geographic area. Fourteen Philadelphia firms have become members, and eight more are waiting to hear whether USLaw.com will accept their applications. “We have lawyers from all over the country e-mailing us, calling us who want to be a part of our network,” said Peter Jaffe, senior vice president and general counsel for USLaw.com. While the potential benefits for clients looking for help are obvious, Jaffe said that participating attorneys have a lot more to gain than simply increased business. In addition to client generation, Jaffe said lawyers benefit by becoming part of the knowledge network of other lawyers and by gaining access to USLaw.com’s business consultants and other experts. For Philadelphia lawyer Robert Tobia, who recently became part of the affiliate network, these other reasons were almost as important as the client generation, especially since members of the network all come from smaller firms. Although he has received “a few nibbles” from clients since the June 1 launch, Tobia said the site’s other features will serve to “level the playing field a lot for the smaller players.” But the access to new clients remains the strongest selling point to participating lawyers. “The client generation is the most important,” said Fred Horn, another participating attorney in the affiliate network. “Those other things are nice fringe benefits.” Tobia and Horn both said potential clients have already contacted them since the network was launched more than four weeks ago. By paying a $200 activation fee for a three-month trial period and $400 per month thereafter, attorneys can become part of the network and have access to a pool of potential clients created by visitors to USLaw.com. While the affiliate network is a relatively new creation, USLaw.com was founded last July as a joint venture between LawCorps Development Co., a temporary legal staffing company; Venture Consultants, a consultant to start-up ventures; and Dispute Resolutions, a privately-held company formed to develop alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. From the time the Web site was launched last November, USLaw.com has closed two rounds of funding, generating $2 million in December and $10 million in April from various investors. Now, with the resources in place, the company introduces its newest feature — the affiliate network. According to Jaffe, most visitors to the site do not even reach the point where the network comes into play. Many can often solve their own problems by searching through an on-line library of more than 1,600 articles. Jaffe said that this library, which he says is the largest of its type on the Internet, contains articles written specifically for consumers and small businesses, not for lawyers. Another feature of USLaw.com is a document builder, which allows users to create documents such as wills and contracts by answering several questions. The site also offers live one-on-one chats with lawyers, which Jaffe describes as similar to AOL’s instant messenger service. This feature, however, only allows lawyers to dispense legal information, not legal advice. “Some people need to go that extra step and need legal advice,” Jaffe added. That is where USLaw.com hopes its lawyer network enters the picture. By perusing the list of local participating lawyers, users may find a lawyer in their geographical area who can provide that advice. Jaffe said that the lawyer network is composed primarily of solo practitioners and small law firms, and that becoming part of the network is a difficult process. Simply paying $400 per month is not enough. “We are trying to make sure these lawyers are highly ethical,” Eidman said. “We ask for three peer references and three client references, and make sure they’re in good standing with the bar.” When the affiliate network first began to form in Philadelphia, Eidman knew of several potential members, because she had previously spent eight years practicing law in Philadelphia. “My initial contacts were contacts I knew from practicing,” Eidman said. “After that, a lot of lawyers have contacted us.” Eidman said that USLaw.com is trying to keep involvement limited to firms with five or fewer lawyers. This restriction, along with limiting each practice area to 10 attorneys, makes USLaw.com more exclusive than most other legal services Web sites. While Eidman estimated that approximately 30 to 35 Philadelphia lawyers have expressed interest in joining the network, she said she expects that number to grow significantly in the next few years. University of Pennsylvania law professor Geoffrey Hazard said that the network should be able to especially benefit clients who are not familiar with ways in which to find a lawyer. “It’s better than consulting young people or going in blind,” said Hazard, who consults USLaw.com on ethical matters. “That’s a problem a lot of young people have.” Jaffe said that USLaw.com has received dozens of inquiries per day in Philadelphia and that the response in the first few weeks has exceeded his expectations by far. USLaw.com has also launched an extensive marketing and advertising campaign in the region, which includes numerous spots on various Philadelphia radio stations. Jaffe said he sees a great potential for growth. “The idea is a good one,” Hazard said. “There will undoubtedly be competition.” And in many ways, there already is. While USLaw.com is the only service to offer a lawyer network of this magnitude, a number of companies have starting using Web sites as ways to attract clients. This includes three new sites — eLawForum.com, iBidLaw.com and LegalPath.com — which function as auctions, allowing users to choose the lowest bidding attorney. In addition, Terry Dershaw of Philadelphia Lawyer said that site, located at phillylawyer.com, will soon expand its lawyer directory, although no definitive plans have been made for it. USLaw.com’s most intense competition for Internet-savvy consumers, however, will probably come from the Philadelphia Bar Association. The bar association will take its lawyer-referral system, a staple of its services since 1948, to the Web early next year. According to Paul Kazaras, director of the bar association’s lawyer referral and information service, the site will ask users a series of qualifying questions in order to match them up with participating attorneys. For lawyers, paying a $250 yearly fee and meeting the bar association’s requirements will allow them to be listed on the site. Unlike USLaw.com, there is no cap on the number of lawyers per practice area or geographical region. Despite the changing technology and the ease of the Internet, though, Kazaras said he still expects the bar association’s phone service to handle a considerable amount of requests. “The Internet will play an increasing role for people who know what type of lawyer they want or just need a little guidance,” Kazaras said, adding that many people will still need someone on the phone to walk them through the process. While those consumers may be out there, Kazaras said that more and more people are looking to the Internet to buy groceries, clothing and tickets for events. Looking on-line for lawyers seems like a natural development in the evolving technological era. And the success of USLaw.com’s network and other new services may help to determine the future in the way lawyers interact with clients. “The Internet is no longer the way of the future,” Eidman said. “It’s the here and now.”

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