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Searching online for a legal bargain just as you’d try to score a sweet deal on a used car or plane ticket may sound a little far-fetched. But Net entrepreneurs are giving it a shot with three dot-coms providing would-be clients a new way to shop for legal talent. Kipp Johnson, the CEO of Examen, the Sacramento, Calif., parent of LegalPath.com, acknowledges some early rough going. “It hasn’t been the easiest thing in the world” to interest lawyers in putting themselves out to bid, says Johnson, who previously worked for a medical organization. “Lawyers are even slower to adapt to the Internet than doctors.” Attorneys typically dabble first with e-mail, then get enthusiastic about online case law research. “We go to the next step and manage the transaction in which clients purchase legal services,” says Johnson. Rivals eLawForum.com and iBidLaw.com make the same offer. “The billable hour was pronounced dead 15 years ago,” says Bill Brennan, COO of iBidLaw, coming soon from Pennsylvania-based law firm consultant Altman Weill Inc. “Now, thanks to the digital marketplace and our fixed-price billing methodologies, efficient firms will do well, and we may actually see its demise.” Brennan, a certified public accountant, hopes to leverage Altman Weill’s business ties to major law firms into a bidding site focused on low-end “commodity” cases such as insurance defense work. He plans to launch in about two months. “It’s an intensely demanding market,” he notes. “There’s no option for failure.” The idea of bidding for legal work is already a success, according to the two sites that are up. Founder John B. Henry II of Washington, D.C.-based eLawForum, which launched last year, says 18 auctions are now under way at his site. His outfit targets corporate clients, such as Liberty Mutual Life Insurance, that post requests for proposals on the site. The clients select which of the site’s registered law firms should see the RFPs, and the law firms respond with bids. “It’s a hybrid approach,” explains Henry, a former corporate lawyer. “The cost gets resolved up front, and then the clients and the bidders may choose to go offline to interview in a quality competition.” ELawForum charges 2 percent of any business generated by its auctions. Henry cites a PricewaterhouseCoopers study showing that outside law firms charge about 50 percent more for the same work than in-house counsel to demonstrate eLawForum’s potential market. “Already, prices look to be coming down,” he says. LegalPath’s Johnson says the benefits to clients seeking lawyers were evident in a recent collection case involving a $30,000 debt. The client retained a low-bidding lawyer, who did a minimum of legal work, wrote a simple demand letter, got the money, and charged about $900 instead of the $9,000 that would have been his under a standard 30 percent-of-what-you-collect arrangement. Currently, LegalPath has about 1,400 attorneys signed up and nine contracts available for bid. It charges each attorney it lists $275, and bills clients $25 for each lawsuit filed. “The power of the Net keeps our costs low,” Johnson says. Of course, sites that boast of saving money on legal services could encounter credibility problems if potential customers worry that they’ll get cut-rate service, but LegalPath and eLawForum argue otherwise. LegalPath says it screens its lawyers for licensure, law school graduation and malpractice claims, and will track their performance in a database available to site users. ELaw Forum, reaching for corporate work, seeks to match clients with well-known and respected law firms with established track records. “Routine fender-benders aren’t rocket science,” notes LegalPath’s Johnson. “A lot of clients need attorneys for simple matters that shouldn’t cost much.” Copyright � 2000 The Industry Standard

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