Technology-Property provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the real property area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.
With this issue the magazine welcomes a new Technology-Property editor. Robert A. Heverly is a member of the Section's Standing Committee on Technology and is Assistant Director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School.
Reflections on Practicing on the World Wide Web
A number of articles and news stories have appeared recently on the subject of making money on the World Wide Web. They all seem to reach the same conclusion: not many people are making money using the Web as a commercial vehicle for offering sales and services. But, in spite of what seems like an uncertain future for commercial exchanges on the Internet, almost everyone appears to want a presence on the World Wide Web.
Some Internet users may expect to find at least some information about a firm or business on the Web and may be disappointed if it is not there. Past Technology columns have discussed what the World Wide Web is and how to "get on" it, from the perspectives of both browsing (or viewing) and putting up a Web page for yourself or your firm. This column addresses why you might want to be on the Web, as well as some concerns that might arise from using the Web in the legal setting.
Why Jump on the Web?
There are many reasons why a lawyer or law firm involved in real property matters may want to have a Web site, and various degrees to which a firm may use its Web site. A firm may simply want to have a Web page that describes the firm and lists addresses and phone numbers, like an advertisement in the Yellow Pages or a legal directory. Someone searching for a firm in the area may come across the firm's name using one of the Web search engines or through a link to the site. This is the most basic level of Internet involvement and involves the fewest potential problems for lawyers. It is a fairly passive approach to Web use, and updates are needed infrequently-only when a change occurs in the firm's personnel or practice areas.
The next level of Web presence involves a firm's use of the Web to actively market itself. The purpose of this kind of site is to get people to visit it, with the hope that those who visit may one day provide the firm with some business. Web content then becomes the primary focus.
One of the most common criticisms of Web pages, and of lawyer Web pages in particular, is that they are all form and no substance. It is not enough to have a "cool" Web page, with attractive graphics and visual or computer effects. Although this type of page is suitable for the simple firm advertisement-type page, most people who use the Web are not impressed by flashy appearance. Web users may visit such a page, but they are not likely to return again and again, which is the aim of more active Web pages.
Content is the key to a Web page that people want to visit. One of the most effective ways to earn a good reputation on the World Wide Web is to develop materials in an area of law that is relevant to your practice. Whether you work in condominiums or commercial leases, put up information relevant to current happenings or developments. Federal legislation, new court cases, even general descriptions of common problems and their legal implications are all content that is uniquely suited to lawyers and their Web pages.
For Lawyers or Nonlawyers?
Of particular importance in deciding whether and to what extent to use the World Wide Web is the decision whether to offer content intended for lawyers or nonlawyers. Developing a web page for nonlawyers does not necessarily indicate a need for less depth or detail. It simply means a different focus to the writing and a little more care in phrasing potential outcomes and results. The choice to market to lawyers or nonlawyers must be based on your practice and what you hope to gain by using the Web in this manner.
For example, if your firm is involved in residential real estate, the firm Web page might let newcomers in your area know the firm is available to provide legal assistance on closings and related matters. Such a page would look very different from that of a lawyer who provides title insurance and who wants to reach out to local practitioners-especially those who may do only an occasional closing here and there-and thus might provide information about title searches and title insurance. The opportunities for marketing the firm, or at least letting practitioners and potential clients know who you are and what you do, are limitless.
Cautions About Practice on the Web
Some issues deserve careful attention from practitioners before their initial foray into the vastness of cyberspace. Check with the office that oversees lawyer advertising in your jurisdiction. If you are required to provide that office with a copy of any advertisements you publish in newspapers or magazines, you may be required to file a copy of your Web pages as well. A quick call to the proper authorities should set you on the straight and narrow. Make certain as well that any state rules regarding content of advertisements-such as inclusion of the address and phone number for the law office-are strictly followed.
Keep in mind that the World Wide Web is accessible from all over the United States and the world. Make certain you are offering services only within the region or regions in which you are licensed to practice law. You would not want to be the test case relating to practicing law without a license over the Internet. In addition, there are some aspects of "cyberlaw" that are still being played out-such as jurisdictional limits. Practitioners with Web sites should be careful to stay abreast of current developments in this emerging and fluid field of law.
Some other concerns are not specific to the practice of law and should be considered when using the World Wide Web. For example, the technology now exists on the Web to bring other people's content into a page that looks as though it is yours. Known as framing, this technology also allows someone to move around within your site while maintaining a uniform look and feel to the page. The latter use is appropriate; the former probably is not.
One case with a claim of misuse of framing technology involved the "Total News" Web site. Total News linked-within frames-to various mainstream media sites but made it appear as though the content was provided by Total News. The media sued, and a settlement required that when visitors to the Total News site follow a link to a story or article, they "leave" the Total News site and go-without the Total News frames-to the news provider's site. The moral: do not make someone else's work look like it is your own on the Web (or elsewhere, for that matter).
Another concern is the matter of links themselves. A link to another site directs people to it. There is no law on when or to how one may link on the Web. One recently filed case pits Microsoft against Ticketmaster. Microsoft, in an effort to provide content on its page, maintains links to individual pages within the Ticketmaster site. Ticketmaster wants everyone who uses its site to start at its home page, so that it can provide notice of special events and other matters. Ticketmaster filed suit, and the case is unresolved as of this writing, with Ticketmaster maintaining that Microsoft has no right to link to pages within its site and Microsoft arguing that it should be able to link to any page that is publicly accessible.
Where does this leave you if you want to provide links to content on the Web? The most minimal precaution is to send an e-mail message to the owner of the page to which you are linking, telling the owner that you are doing so. The page owner may send back an objection, may ask you to link in a different way or may not respond at all. If you are more concerned with not making waves, you can send the page owner a request for permission to link. Most people with pages want them to be seen, so getting permission is certainly possible.
Finally, note that even if a link is allowed, it is not permissible to copy graphic or other visual material to use as a link to another page without permission from the page owner. Many groups and individuals protect their graphical works and may even have policies-as does the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section-forbidding the use of logos by individuals or firms. It is best to check out all of these details before finding out the hard way that someone is unhappy with
what you have done.
Whatever you decide is the target for your page or site and how-ever you present it, a presence on the World Wide Web may-in addition to making certain you can be found when someone is looking specifically for you-help bring your practice into the 21st century.
Technology-Property Editor: Robert A. Heverly, Albany Law School, 80 New Scotland Ave., Albany, NY 12208. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Probate & Property Magazine is published six times annually and is included in section members' annual dues.