General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Trial Research? Marketing? The Net Changes Everything

By Jerry Lawson

Five years ago if you asked most lawyers how the Internet would change the practice of law, the answer would most likely be something like:

"That computer deal, right? That’s a nerd thing. I can’t see something like that changing how lawyers work."

If you asked most lawyers the question today, the answer would more likely be along the lines of "Well, it’s great for e-mail, and some lawyers get a few clients by Web pages. I guess that’s about it."

Today’s answer underestimates the impact of the Internet on the legal profession almost as badly as the answer five years ago. In research, communications, marketing and more, we’ve only begun to see the changes that the Internet will bring to the legal profession, including trial lawyers.

Research: As the quantity and quality of free legal research sites continues to increase it becomes clearer that legal researchers who rely only on books and older online services are at a disadvantage compared to those who can also use the Internet. However, finding the law may not be the most important Internet research advantage.

When I was a litigator, most of the cases I tried turned on facts, not exhaustive research in law libraries or clever legal theories. The Internet offers new opportunities for factual research. Litigators who understand how to use the Internet have an extraordinary advantage over those who do not.

Communications: The advantages of e-mail are now widely understood by the bar, but e-mail is only the beginning of the Internet’s communications tools. The Internet makes it easier for lawyers to communicate with clients and collaborate on team efforts. "Extranets," or private, secure areas of the Internet, facilitate cooperation between those who are geographically separated–or just find them easier to use than older methods of working together. Two extranets of particular interest to the trial bar are ATLA Exchange, exchange.atla.org and TrialNet, www.trialnet.com. ATLA Exchange offers members access to proprietary databases of interest to trial lawyers, while TrialNet is used by large organizations to coordinate outside counsel.

Besides extranets, lawyers and their clients can get surprisingly large benefits from smaller scale technologies like instant messaging (with ICQ–"I Seek You" being a prime example), faxing to and from e-mail, and lawyer calendars on the Web so they are available to the lawyer’s colleagues and clients.

Marketing: Thousands of law firms have Web sites, but all too many lawyers still think of them as merely electronic versions of paper brochures. As more law firms begin to better understand how the Internet works, they will see an even better return on investment.

In the long run, virtual communities, or online gatherings of people with shared interests, may turn out to be even more significant for legal marketing. Most lawyers today don’t "get" virtual communities, just as five years ago most lawyers didn’t "get" Web sites. Human beings want to interact with other human beings, and virtual communities cater to this desire. Prairielaw.com, www.prairielaw.com, founded by a trial lawyer, is an example of a law-oriented virtual community. The participants sort themselves out according to their areas of interest, making it easy for lawyers to find a "prequalified" audience.

If you want to keep the pace over the next decade, you will need to maximize the Internet’s benefits in the areas of research, communications and marketing.

 

Jerry Lawson is the author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA Law Practice Management Section, product code 511-0413. $39.95 for LPM members, $49.95 general).

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