Lawyers Open Their File Cabinets
for a Web Resource
By ANNE EISENBERG
MEDICAL information is widely available online. Web surfers can research their symptoms at WebMD.com, MayoClinic.com or thousands of other sites.
But free legal information for consumers who want to do some research before they visit a lawyer is far less broadly available on the Web. Now services are appearing that may make it easier for consumers to do their own preliminary homework on legal issues in advance of seeking help from a professional.
JDSupra.com, a new site, is stocking a free, virtual law library by persuading lawyers to do something highly unusual: to post examples of their legal work online for use by one and all, no strings attached. Many of the documents are articles and newsletters that can be understood by ordinary mortals who want more background on a legal issue, or who would like to find lawyers with expertise in a particular area.
It works like this: Lawyers who contribute to JD Supra dip into their hard drives for articles, court papers, legal briefs and other tidbits of their craft. They upload the documents, as well as a profile of themselves that is linked to each document. Site visitors who have a legal problem and are thinking about finding a lawyer can use an easily searchable database to look up, say, “trademark infringement,” find related documents and, if they like the author’s experience and approach, perhaps click on his or her profile.
Contributing lawyers get publicity and credit for the socially useful act of adding to a public database, and visitors get free information, said Aviva Cuyler, a former litigator in Marshall, Calif., who founded the business. “People will still need attorneys,” Ms. Cuyler said. “We are not encouraging people to do it themselves, but to find the right people to help them.”
The site opened at the end of February and has attracted about 200 contributors, including small, midsize and large firms, as well as academics and groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Cato Institute. The basic service of posting documents and linked profiles is free to these contributors; the site charges $240 a year if contributors want to add links in their profiles to their e-mail addresses, Web sites and blogs. The site will also carry advertisements.
JD Supra is typical of a group of fledgling online legal research services that promise to open a field that was once closed, said David Curle, an analyst at Outsell Inc., a market research firm in Burlingame, Calif., for the professional publishing industry. “There’s a real opportunity here in these latent markets as services go beyond lawyer-finding tools” like online lists of attorneys, he said, “particularly in the consumer market, which is wide open.”
Services like JD Supra can provide background information for consumers before they engage a lawyer, he said, “and possibly provide them one day with the tools to bypass the lawyers altogether.”
While JD Supra poses no threat to giants like LexisNexis with their extensive libraries of documents, the service may be useful to lawyers as well as consumers, said Marc S. Stern, a lawyer in Seattle.
“Attorneys draft many documents that they use once, and then file away, and many are prime examples of a lawyer’s craft,” he said.
Instead, a brief that took days to write and has an excellent argument could be uploaded to JD Supra and indexed, for instance, by area of law. “Then other attorneys could get the benefit of this analysis when they approach similar cases,” he said.
Mitchell J. Matorin, a lawyer in Needham, Mass., who started his own practice last summer after stints at the Justice Department and two large firms, is contributing to JD Supra.
“The site puts solo practitioners like me on an equal footing with huge law firms, providing exposure that would otherwise be nearly impossible to get,” he said. People don’t have to rely on a firm’s name recognition or its size in selecting a lawyer, he said. “Instead,” he added, “they can read samples of actual work, and then make an informed judgment.”
But the success of JD Supra will ultimately depend on the range of documents it accumulates in coming months, said Elena Garella, a lawyer in private practice in Seattle. “For the service to be useful, many lawyers will need to upload their documents,” she said. “It only takes 10 or 20 minutes, but for a lot of lawyers, 10 or 20 minutes is hard to come by.”
OTHER innovations in virtual law libraries are concerned with new search technology for legal information on the Web. Thomas Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego, is the co-creator of a search engine called PreCYdent, now in the beta, or testing, stage, that uses legal citations to find related information (www.precydent.com).
Carl Malamud, an Internet radio pioneer in Sebastopol, Calif., and a proponent of free legal information on the Web, said that dozens of Web sites publishing court and other legal information for public use are either in the works or rapidly expanding their offerings.
“It’s about time legal information is free and open online to the public,” he said. “Information on medicine on the Web has changed the doctor-patient relationship — but it’s still hard to do your homework before you go to see a lawyer. Law is the last bastion.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company