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As the plane began its ascent out of Salt Lake City, slowly banking east over the Wasatch Mountains, I pulled Delta’s Sky Magazine from the pouch in front of me to see if the in-flight movie would be worth five bucks, if only to relieve the boredom of the nearly four-hour trip to Philadelphia. My eyes fell upon an ad for legalopinion.com. It promised an “online written opinion” within two business days for only $39.95. As a lawyer, I thought that was pretty interesting. Was it worth $39.95 to find out what this was all about? My curiosity overcame my frugality. So, when I got my feet firmly planted on the ground and my laptop securely plugged into a phone line, I struck out for cyberspace. What question would I pose? Nothing too easy, like “My untrained, unrestrained Rottweiler bit my neighbor for the third time. Do I have to pay for the 22 sutures in his left calf?” No, I wanted to get my $39.95′s worth. But I couldn’t be too esoteric. Legalopinion.com’s Web site identifies 25 practice areas, e.g., labor and employment, immigration, bankruptcy, within which questions should fall. And I couldn’t be anonymous. I’d have to identify myself and potentially adverse parties in order for the responding attorney to check for conflicts of interest. I own a small commercial property in a neighboring state, so I checked “landlord/tenant” as the relevant practical area and framed a straightforward question concerning a minor dispute with a tenant. I was given a list of three attorneys who handle landlord/tenant matters. The closest one listed was 135 miles from my property. Legalopinion.com promises a response within two business days. I submitted my question at 1:49 p.m. and was e-mailed an answer at 3:55 p.m. the same afternoon. Well, I’d have to give high marks for promptness. But the response began “I would need more information to completely answer this question.” I wasn’t convinced. I was pretty sure I’d crafted my query like a well-drafted bar exam question — every pertinent fact was right there. The answer seemed offhand and hedged. As I perused its Web site though, I realized I’d misperceived the real purpose of legalopinion.com. Its purpose isn’t so much to provide a legal opinion for the cost of dinner for eight at McDonald’s. It’s a hook, designed to bring potential clients and lawyers together: the client finds an attorney without leaving the comfort of her home or office, and the attorney finds a client without enduring a time-consuming initial interview … efficiency all around. The brilliance of this scheme lies in the fact that both sides pay. The client (or customer, as legalopinion.com prefers) pays $39.95 for the service. The lawyer pays $99 per practice area, per year, to be listed in legalopinion.com’s directory. Now this is a dot-com company that just might survive, I thought. IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE Was I being irrationally exuberant? The Seattle-based publicly traded company launched its service in October 1999. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can get an opinion from one of over 5,000 U.S. attorneys now signed up. Shortly after its U.S. launch, legalopinion.com purchased a portfolio of national advertising, valued at $40 million, in exchange for restricted stock. Its Nov. 30, 1999, press release declared: “This is an enormous advertising program, intended to capture and control the marketplace.” The ambitious campaign covers radio, television, magazines and billboards. The company is also sponsoring events for NASCAR and the 2000 Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit. legalopinion.com expanded into Canada with 165 lawyers participating in mid-February 2000. Plans for invading Australia and the United Kingdom are underway. The company does not intend to limit its business to its online directory and opinion service. In March, it formed an e-business partnership with U.S. Legal Forum, an on-line provider of 14,000 legal documents, where you can get anything from wills to divorce forms, all for nominal fees. And there are plans for developing other ventures. On April 4, legalopinion.com announced “the formation of several business-to-business (B2B) service packages and strategic alliances that are expected to generate a substantial recurring revenue stream,” one of which is the provision of online access to lawyers for the employees and families of subscribing companies, a cyberspace prepaid legal services plan. BOILERPLATE BABBLE What about the ethical implications? Boilerplate at the top of the “question form” states: “Neither your selection of an attorney, nor the attorney’s answer to your question, constitutes the creation of an attorney-client relationship. Any such relationship must be established between you and the lawyer directly.” This seems dubious. A cocktail party conversation in which someone asks for and an attorney gives legal advice may give rise to an attorney-client relationship. If such casually rendered advice suffices, surely a professional relationship may be created when a customer responds to the pull of an ad’s tag line: “Got a legal question? Get a legal opinion.” After disclaiming the creation of a professional relationship, incongruously, legalopinion.com then takes care to comply with ethical rules which would apply only if such a relationship were created. For instance, the first thing the responding attorney must do is perform a conflicts check. While the questioner cannot be anonymous (because of the need to check for conflicts), the interaction between questioner and attorney is confidential. All queries and answers are maintained in a secure database, to be accessed only by customer and participating attorney. As to qualifications and competence, a participating attorney must have an active license to practice and be in good standing in his state. He or she must maintain a law office in his or her jurisdiction, an oddly physical requirement for a purely cyperspace business. No unauthorized practice of law issue is created because the customer has to identify the jurisdiction in which the legal problem arises and the directory then lists only lawyers licensed in that state. While legalopinion.com requires its customers to release it from liability stemming from an erroneous opinion, this release does not extend to the responding lawyer. So, there is no attempt to limit prospectively any legal malpractice claim, which limitation would violate most states’ ethics rules. Legalopinion.com emphasizes that there is no fee splitting between the company and its participating attorneys as this would be unethical. The $39.95 charge is an administrative fee for use of its technology and listing service. The legal opinion is “free.” Interesting how our ethics rules enable legalopinion.com to structure a transaction where both the buyer and provider of services pay. ‘HOUSEHOLD NAME’ While lawyers’ ethics rules create no stumbling blocks, the company faces more practical problems. Legalopinion.com says it is “positioned to become a household name within a year.” Its survival may depend upon it. From the consumer’s perspective, the company is going to have to attract a lot of attorneys in common practice areas from all geographic areas, so that it can service communities, large and small. Although I’d posed a mundane question about landlord/tenant law in my trial run, the closest attorney listed on the directory was 135 miles away, making it unlikely I’d retain him if my minor dispute blossomed. From the lawyer’s perspective, participation may wane if legalopinion.com fails to generate new clients. An acquaintance, whose name I found listed under two practice areas, said he’d signed on after being solicited but hadn’t had a single hit yet. To attract attorneys during this start-up period, listing fees are waived until Jan. 1, 2001. But I wonder how long my friend will shell out money for his listings if he doesn’t get some nibbles soon. Company chairman Brian Lovig has said: “New client generation is the single greatest challenge facing legal practitioners in our changing interactive world.” True perhaps, but legalopinion.com’s no panacea. Most lawyers have limited dollars available for marketing and advertising. For now, being listed in legalopinion.com’s directory may be less effective than a Yellow pages ad that allows potential clients to zero in quickly on attorneys in particular geographic and practice areas. Legalopinion.com faces another problem more difficult than assembling and maintaining a massive attorney network. A brief on-line contact is probably insufficient for many consumers to figure out whether the lawyer chosen from the directory is the lawyer for them. What with all the handholding a domestic relations practice requires, it’s tough to imagine a distraught spouse selecting an attorney via e-mail. It’s equally hard to envision a seriously injured person in search of a compassionate advocate, choosing a lawyer without an in-person meeting. So for at least some practice areas, — those where the nature of the matter necessitates a closer human connection between lawyer and client — legalopinion.com’s efficiency may be its downfall. Susan Faw is general counsel for Sur La Table Inc., a privately held retail company, based in Seattle. She formerly practiced in Delaware, primarily in the area of legal ethics. She has been bar counsel, an adjunct professor in professional responsibility at Widener University School of Law, defense counsel before the Board on Professional Responsibility and ethics counsel for New Castle County. She can be reached via e-mail at sfawsurlatable.com.

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