Whether it's drawing up a will or resolving an intellectual property claim, MyCounsel.com is betting it can help people find legal information and a qualified attorney online. The company plans to begin offering its new services next week, joining a long list of start-ups angling to bring the clubby world of law into the digital age.
"The Internet is a fantastic way to provide (legal) services more conveniently, more cost-effectively for both the client and the participating attorney," MyCounsel CEO David Tarrant said. "There's a lot of inefficiency in the legal process today, and the Internet is a perfect way to address that."
While legal publishing giants such as Lexis/Nexis and West Group have dominated the legal research service markets, the Internet has attracted a number of online companies that aim to change the face of the legal industry by offering legal information or services via the Web.
CyberSettle.com, for one, offers an online, computer-assisted method for settling insurance claims ranging from personal injury to property damage disputes. LawGuru.com offers not only legal research and an attorney search tool, but also features such as chat rooms and daily legal news.
Tarrant said the service will provide people with immediate access to legal services in a more convenient way without the hassle of thumbing through the yellow pages and making phone calls or driving directly to an attorney's office.
"MyCounsel is closer to being a referral service, and I think the Web is good in that regard," Nielsen/NetRatings analyst Peggy O'Neill said. "I don't think the Web is a great substitution for dealing with your lawyer face to face and going over all the complexities of your particular case."
Still, legal experts said the company needs to be careful not to run afoul of intricate state rules that strictly limit the practice of law to licensed professionals.
Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said that while the Web can provide a host of legal information, Web sites that offer individualized legal advice must be careful.
"If you're smart, you don't give people...specific legal advice (on the Web)," Froomkin said. "The biggest risk is to the author--and the unauthorized practice of law and practicing in a jurisdiction that they're not permitted."