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Perry Mason meets e-Bay: Should you shop for lawyers online?

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in Hiring,Human Resources

If you need a lawyer to handle an employment issue, you can now go online, announce your legal needs and wait for offers from interested lawyers. But as with many things on the Internet: You can do it, but should you?

How it works

Several Web sites have popped up in the past couple of years that aim to match lawyers with potential clients. Some of the leaders include www.attorneysbid.com, www.casematch. com, www.legalmatch.com and www.sharktank.com.

These services help streamline some parts of the lawyer-search process, but you can't entrust your legal future to cyberspace.

Most of these sites are free to individuals and businesses, with lawyers paying a fee to be listed.

To start the process, you register at the site and answer questions about what you need. Then, interested lawyers respond with their credentials, a quote and how they'd handle your case.

Although these sites are designed to be anonymous, beware.

At this selection stage, it isn't like being in a lawyer's office with the door closed, notes Will Hornsby, staff counsel with the American Bar Association's (ABA) legal services division. "On the Internet, assume nothing is confidential."

This process is no time to start spilling secrets. Reason: You have no attorney-client privilege at this stage.

You have to walk a line between providing enough information for lawyers to decide whether to bid

for your business and protecting information you want to remain private. Don't feel you have to answer every question upfront. You can provide more later.

Caveat emptor

After lawyers respond, check their background. The lawyers on a site may have years of experience or may have just passed the bar.

The first thing you want to check is that that the person actually is an attorney licensed to do business in your state. Some sites do a bit of screening, but don't count on that.

For example, LegalMatch checks the names and addresses of attorneys who register on its site, and makes sure they are in good standing with the state bar. But even LegalMatch President Dmitry Shubov notes that the site is like a dating service. "All we do is set you up on the first date." It would be foolish to jump into marriage without learning more about your prospective partner.

"Hiring an attorney is one of the most important decisions you can make when you run a business," notes Shubov, and even if you're watching every penny, there are more important considerations than price.

The real bottom line

Shopping for a lawyer online isn't like bidding for a mountain bike on e-Bay, when you know the exact model that you want and the only difference is the price, observed Alec Schwartz, director of the ABA's prepaid legal services institute.

Beyond knowing the attorney's level of expertise, Hornsby points out that you should know your goal. If you're looking to compromise, you don't want an aggressive litigator who practices a "scorched earth" policy.

SharkTank offers a list of questions to consider in selecting an attorney, from checking references to finding out whether the lawyer or paralegals will actually be handling the work.

At some sites, you can see individual ratings on lawyers from previous clients. Of course, those clients may not know any more about what makes a good attorney than the guy standing behind you at the deli.

Bottom line: The Internet lets you cast a wider net for an attorney in less time. Sending out what amounts to a request for proposals to such a wide range of attorneys could not be done without the Internet, or at least e-mail, notes Hornsby.

If you can try it out without any binding obligation, it's worth your time to try a search. At first, use it for boilerplate matters that won't suffer from lack of face-to-face contact.

Through an online search, you may find an attorney who handles a high volume of work in just the area where you need help. In addition to the lawyer's expertise, that also can translate into cost savings.


Other free legal services online

The American Bar Association has a new site, www.findlegalhelp.org, that offers advice on getting free legal help, paying your lawyer and resolving disputes with a lawyer. By clicking on "Hire a Lawyer," you'll find online directories of lawyers and services that match attorneys with clients.

Get free or low-cost legal forms you can download and do lawyer searches at sites such as www.siccode.com/forms.php3, www.uslaw.com, www.legal.com or www.freeadvice.com.

Find links to court decisions, federal and state laws, and definitions of legal terms at www.findlaw.com.

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