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In practice for more than a quarter century, West Hartford matrimonial lawyer Eliot J. Nerenberg is secure enough in his legal skills not to feel threatened, he said, by Web sites offering divorces for bargain-basement flat fees of $389 and up. But for less established solo and small-firm attorneys who depend on business from average, middle-class legal consumers, the barrage of new, so-called “e-lawyer” ventures taking the Internet by storm could add new meaning to the phrase “competitive marketplace.” Armed with discount prices, catchy domain names and celebrity pitchmen the likes of former New York City Mayor and “People’s Court” Judge Ed Koch, online entrepreneurs are racing to establish branded web-based legal services that cater to the run-of-the-mill American public. Some of them provide extensive legal information and legal forms to potential pro se litigants. Others are rapidly developing online referral networks of attorneys who, as promised by the recently launched Sharktank.com, are standing by “ready to attack your case.” Indeed, the onslaught of sleek, state-of-the-art legal Web sites is being fueled by venture capitalists who, in the last six months alone, have funneled as much as $100 million into such enterprises, according to Richard S. Granat, founder and CEO of Baltimore-based mycounsel.com, and chairman of an American Bar Association task force examining the recent explosion of online lawyering. The anticipated spoils up for grabs are mind-boggling. By 2004, Vernon Keenan, of the San Francisco-based Internet market research firm Keenan Vision Inc., predicts that online legal services will be an $8.7 billion industry, accounting for roughly 5 percent of all the legal fees paid out in the U.S., he said. WORTH A SHOT “It has the potential to make it hard for lawyers starting out in a general practice — no question,” said Darien solo Joseph M. Pankowski Jr. of the competition posed by sites such as Koch’s TheLAW.com, USLaw.com and Americounsel.com. Pankowski recently signed up for Sharktank, despite his displeasure with what he maintained is an ill-conceived name for the lawyer-referral Web site. “I don’t see it being a significant source of business,” he admitted. Pankowski tends to go after high-end trust and estate work from Connecticut’s wealthy Fairfield County residents and doubts his typical clients would shop for bargains on the Net with their sizeable assets at stake, he said. But the trial subscription was free and Pankowski said he figured it was worth a shot. When and if the Web site starts charging lawyers to belong to the service, “I would jump so fast my head would spin,” he noted. Pankowski said he has yet to receive his first referral from the site, a report shared by two other Connecticut lawyers listed online as members of TheLAW.com. A third Connecticut lawyer listed on TheLAW.com site said he didn’t even recall signing up for the company’s referral service. Both sites have yet to market their lawyer-referral businesses in Connecticut, officials at the two companies said in explaining a lack of local referrals. Thomas M. Ciampa, founder of the Rockland, Massachusetts-based Sharktank, however, said his site generated nearly 300 postings from people looking for attorneys within two weeks of its initial advertising campaign in two Boston-area newspapers. Sharktank went live beginning on April 2. Within two weeks, its referral network included more than 2,300 lawyers, including 57 from Connecticut, according to Ciampa. Another competitor, Needham, Massachusetts-based Americounsel, was launched in the Bay State in mid-March and plans to start making referrals in Connecticut by the end of May at the latest, said founder and CEO Jonathan Slater. A DIGITAL RAINMAKER? Sharktank and Americounsel take distinctly different approaches in matching clients with lawyers. After five years at Boston’s Hutchins, Wheeler & Dittmar, Ciampa said he knows firsthand of the countless hours that lawyers waste attending “beauty contests” that never result in new business, as well as the toll that after-hours rainmaking efforts have on attorneys’ personal lives. Sharktank, he said, serves as dialogue opener between lawyers and legal consumers. The latter group starts the process by posting basic outlines of their legal needs. Network attorneys then can respond by noting their expertise in whatever area of law a client seeks representation. Lawyers also have the choice of suggesting a fee for their services, Ciampa said. Their responses are then shipped to clients’ confidential mailboxes, giving the consumers a basis for comparing the attorneys vying for their business. “It’s not an auction,” Ciampa insisted, noting that, although price is a definite factor in consumer decisions, so are attorneys’ level of experience and expertise. “We’re trying to provide lawyers a tremendous marketing opportunity that doesn’t even require them to leave their office,” he added. As for the site’s name, Ciampa insisted it isn’t meant to denigrate lawyers. Rather, it’s a “tribute” to attorneys’ tenacity. “As a litigator, there was no higher praise than someone praising your aggressiveness,” he said. Americounsel’s Slater said his site hopes to attract middle-class Americans and small businesses by offering relatively low-end legal work — everything from residential real estate closings to Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings — at flat-fee rates. Americounsel lawyers, for example, will represent a party in a divorce for $389, providing the case does not involve child-support obligations or jointly owned property, according to the Web site. At the same time, Americounsel, Slater said, saves lawyers in its network from having to spend unbillable time screening potential clients as well as cranking out drafts of legal forms, thus enabling them to represent clients at such discount prices. It also spares them the trouble of having to collect fees from clients later on, he said. Thus, he added, network lawyers are freed up enough to focus on what they do best: handle their clients’ legalities. To ensure that its attorneys get an adequate number of cases, Americounsel’s referral network will only accept a limited number of attorney-members per geographic area. In Connecticut, Slater envisions enlisting no more than 50 to 75 lawyers, he said. Network lawyers are screened based on the length of time they have practiced law (no less than 5 years) and minimum levels of malpractice insurance ($100,000 to $300,000 per claim), according to the Web site. They also must be in good standing with their state’s lawyer-disciplinary body. ASSEMBLY-LINE WORK? TheLAW.com, meanwhile, started out last fall not as a mere attorney-client matchmaker, but as a service that empowers consumers by offering them free detailed, state-by-state information on the law, as well as a wide array of legal forms, which they can purchase online, according to Robert S. Kinelski, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company’s chief operating officer. Only now is it assembling a team of online lawyers, Kinelski said. Still, like its competitors, it banks on a belief that there exists a huge untapped market of consumers who would otherwise retain counsel — mostly for one-shot legal matters — if not for the prohibitive cost and their discomfort with attorneys and the legal system. “In some very small cases, people will use our site � and do something on their own,” said Kinelski. But despite the occasional pro se litigant who probably wouldn’t have gone to a lawyer in the first place, Kinelski said the site’s mission is not to wrestle potential clients away from attorneys. On the contrary, Kinelski maintains, people who visit TheLAW.com, are more likely to retain legal counsel than they otherwise would because the site equips them with knowledge of the law, and, in the process, enhances their image of the legal system. “At the end of the day, sites like ours will result in more clients and more work for solos and small firms,” agreed Doug Kotlove, spokesman for Silver Spring. Md.-based USLaw.com. Many attorneys, however, are reluctant to embrace their fledgling e-lawyer cousins. Among other gripes, they decry what they foresee as a decrease in quality lawyering, as online attorneys accept work at unmanageably low rates and cut corners to stay profitable. Nerenberg, the West Hartford, Conn., family lawyer, said he has declined invitations to join Internet-referral services because he doesn’t want to be sucked into doing what he calls “assembly-line work.” “Quality of services is a real concern whenever you have low prices,” he said. And, with rare exception, people using the Internet to find counsel are scouting for the cheapest prices possible, he maintained. “Simple wills at $200 a pop aren’t going to put food on the table,” added Darien’s Pankowski, “unless you do a hundred of them.” And, “If we start holding ourselves out like Walmart or Kmart,” proclaimed Kenneth J. Laska, of Plainville’s Segal & Laska, clients are “going to start treating us like Walmart or Kmart.” NO GUARANTEES Laska, head of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association’s legal technology committee, also discredited legal Web sites for the lack of client-confidentiality protections they provide to consumers during the initial intake process before they are paired with an attorney. Americounsel’s Slater disagreed. “It’s a fear that’s not based in fact,” he countered. Still, Sharktank clients, said Ciampa, are greeted with a bold-lettered disclaimer alerting them that their online communications are not confidential. The notice appears in the very box where they type information about their cases, so it can’t be missed. As for the quality of Sharktank lawyers, Ciampa said the site advises consumers to exercise the same cautions in choosing counsel as they would if they got an attorney’s name through a friend or by word-of-mouth. “We’re not guaranteeing these lawyers,” he stated. “There’s really no way to do it where we wouldn’t be giving [clients] false comfort.” Online lawyering, said Laska, also prevents lawyers from being able to size up potential clients in person. In that regard, Pankowski questioned how attorneys handling wills over the Internet are able to determine whether their clients are of sound mind at the time of the will signing. “I would love to see some of the disclaimers they put on these Web sites,” he quipped. THE POWER OF THE INTERNET Still, there’s no avoiding the inevitable. Keenan, the Internet market analyst, said online lawyering will thrive through the upcoming availability of two-way interactive Internet conferencing as well as the growing price transparency of legal services that the Internet promotes. As a result, lawyers who don’t adapt are “going to lose some of their clientele to lower-priced competitors,” he warned. Adapting, however, doesn’t mean that new attorneys must belong to an online attorney-referral Web site, said West Hartford solo Damon A. R. Kirschbaum, chairman of the legal technology committee of the Connecticut Bar Association’s young lawyers section. “The power of the Internet is that you’re able to go around these people,” Kirschbaum said. It doesn’t take that long, he added, for lawyers to learn how to put up Web sites of their own. Indeed, “not all these [e-lawyer] companies are going to last,” maintained mycounsel.com’s Granat. “But it’s certainly going to be interesting over the next year to see what happens.”

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