- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2000

Lawyers who are riddled with anxiety about losing clients to electronic advisers can stop worrying. On-line robo-lawyers and a few wannabe practitioners already offer free advice that, critics warn, may be worth exactly what it costs.
When asked to find "free legal advice" on the Internet, one speedy search engine tallied about 330,000 Web sites worldwide in 0.13 seconds. These dot-com sites have cyber-addresses like findlaw, lawguru, nolo and lawline. Others are childcustody or freeadvice.
Many leaders in the legal profession seek to head off inevitable competitive challenges at a time when the once-superheated growth rate in new lawyers has cooled for the fifth straight year and the number of law school hopefuls is 32 percent lower than 10 years ago.
"The law is not competing as well as it did for a while with other professions. It seems to have lost some of its luster as a profession," says Erica Moeser, president of the National Council of Bar Examiners in Madison, Wis., which provides bar admission tests to every state and investigates applicants' backgrounds for some states.
The future is now, agreed other authorities on the law who responded to an informal survey by The Washington Times of leaders at about 20 organizations.
They concede that cyberspace will force the practice of law to evolve at warp speed. It could mean an end to individual states' exclusive lock on licensing lawyers, a practice that provides little reciprocity and means standards change at state lines.
Sticky problems lie ahead as states or the Federal Trade Commission attempt to regulate the unauthorized practice of law via the same Internet where consumers can buy prescription drugs without a prescription and place sports bets that are illegal in their own states.
Among other visions in lawyers' crystal balls:
Legislation that would limit lawyers' right to mount nationwide federal class-action lawsuits, which often enrich lawyers while leaving thousands and even millions of anonymous clients with nothing except a legal barrier against suing personally for damages.
Continuing efforts from law school onward to increase racial and ethnic diversity throughout the legal profession. This has been the No. 1 priority for outgoing American Bar Association President William G. Paul, a lawyer from Oklahoma City, who argues that diversity will ensure the broadest respect for the justice system.
Growing acceptance by lawyers who do not advertise of those who do, ending a longtime ethical schism. Many objections to advertising fell by the wayside when ads grew more sophisticated and less distasteful, says Richard H. Middleton Jr. of Savannah, Ga., president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
A doubtful prognosis for quality as average scores on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) decline among those who actually enter law school. The pool of applicants is shrinking so sharply that, to keep classes full, deans admit applicants whom they would not have chosen seven or eight years ago.

A saturated job market

For decades, any chart depicting law graduates and new lawyers slashed upward like a bullish stock market on a great day. But while stocks continued to soar, the rise in graduates and new lawyers stopped dead and even declined slightly beginning in the mid-1990s.
In the 1990-91 school year, 152,685 would-be lawyers took the LSAT, the highest number ever. Last year 104,236 took the test, used to screen applicants. At the same time the number who passed and actually applied to law school dropped 28 percent from 99,327 to 71,726.
Despite wild fluctuations, the number of law students admitted dropped only 2 percent from 1991 to the 1998-99 school year. And the number of those who got law degrees actually rose by 7 percent.
The job market for new lawyers was oversaturated, says analyst Ed Haggerty at the Law School Admission Council in Philadelphia.
"Some schools say that's why they cut class size. They said they felt there were too many lawyers," Mr. Haggerty says.
He notes the decline in applicants coincided with a surge in the U.S. economy in which college graduates found high-paying jobs right out of school.
"Law is still a growth industry," says Edwin C. Yohnka, a lawyer and director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago. The former ABA aide says he doesn't expect lawyers ever to recognize a final frontier to fight over.
"When one falls, another goal arises. There seems to always be some cause out there, whether it's civil rights or whatever," Mr. Yohnka says. "There are bound to be boundaries and limitations. We just haven't found them yet."

The 'globalization' challenge

Many lawyers find one boundary they abhor at their state line, across which they may not practice their profession.
"The globalization of the practice of law should be viewed not in terms of whether or not it is desirable. Rather, it should simply be viewed as inevitable," says Miss Moeser, the National Council of Bar Examiners president.
Each state uses at least one of the bar-admission tests provided by her organization, but neither test is used by all states.
"The test of a profession migrating to a national practice will come in … how the states' highest courts, which typically regulate the admission of lawyers, will adjust," Miss Moeser says, "and whether the executive and legislative branches of state and federal government will intervene in or pre-empt state court prerogatives in furtherance of the globalization objective."
Those who object to that route include Mr. Middleton, the president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. ATLA's members specialize in filing lawsuits over personal injury and product liability.
Mr. Middleton advocates licensing lawyers where they work. His firm, however, is among those that network with others across state lines to form combined practices and do business nationwide.
"I think states will keep hold of it," he says of licensing. "It's essential that lawyers be licensed state to state, and only the exception practices across the lines."

Congress eyes 'opt in' plan

Developments aimed at greasing the class-action industry that produces billion-dollar jury verdicts is exactly what Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican, says he wants Congress to stop.
Mr. Cox is backing a measure called the Freedom to Choose Your Lawyer Act, which would halt the process of requiring possible plaintiffs to "opt out" of a lawsuit if they want to preserve the right to sue on their own. That choice has been the situation in cases ranging from sick smokers to owners of a particular car model to harried frequent fliers on American Airlines.
"We would make it an 'opt in' system," Mr. Cox, a lawyer for 22 years and a member of the House leadership, told The Washington Times in an interview this week. "It is often the case that even though you might be part of a class of plaintiffs in a case, you don't know it.
"As it is now, the lawyers claiming to represent you in the 'class' don't have to get your approval to settle the case on terms favorable to them, and sometimes to the defendants," Mr. Cox says.
"If you did then want to make your own claim, you would find the courthouse doors closed to you."

The electronic revolution

Electronic technology means lawyers no longer need show up to communicate in a case and so licensing authorities must take a broader world view, says Frederick J. Krebs, president of the District of Columbia-based American Corporate Counsel Association.
"The licensing of the legal profession, primarily by states, seems increasingly archaic in a global community. The monopoly of lawyers on the practice of law is finished," says Mr. Krebs, whose group is an information clearinghouse for 12,000 lawyers at 5,300 organizations that are large enough to need staff counsel.
"With sophisticated consumers using free services and advice obtained through the Internet wills on demand, legal kiosks at the mall, court records on line lawyers will not be able to sell what's available for free," he says.
"That's all going to require some rethinking by the bar about how you change regulation so you don't stifle innovation," D.C. lawyer and former congressional aide James C. Turner says.
Mr. Turner heads the legal-reform group HALT (an acronym for its original name, Help Abolish Legal Tyranny).
"It doesn't make sense to apply paper and typewriter restrictions mindlessly in the 21st century," he says.
The inability to regulate illegal gambling and sale of prescription drugs without a doctor's order may be precursors that show the difficulty of regulating the "unauthorized practice of law" on the Internet.

The changing landscape

One of the busiest self-help legal Web sites is www.nolo.com, which claims it has grown by more than 100 percent a year since going on line in 1995 to "democratize the law." The site's brass denies that anyone there practices law.
"We really want to empower people to make their own legal decisions by supplying useful and accurate information, but not to give legal advice," nolo.com spokeswoman Jennifer Spoerri says. "If you want legal advice with a guarantee, see a lawyer.
"The legal establishment thundered against us, and Texas attempted to sue nolo.com in 1999 along with other self-help legal publishers, but Governor George Bush stopped that," she says.
The site's publishing arm produces 20 percent of all revenue. It is a direct descendent of the radical protest movement in Berkeley, Calif., the company's base, Miss Spoerri says.
David Rothenberg, nolo.com's chief financial officer, says the site gets 500,000 visits a month.
The Wild West nature of the Internet provides lots of work for lawyers. Some seek to protect intellectual property rights from instant piracy of words or music; others find new opportunities.
Stephen O'Neill of Menlo Park, Calif., is making good from dot-com sites that go bad by handling bankruptcy filings for failed companies. He recently began his seventh case.
But who will be the electronic lawyers of the 21st century for dot-coms that don't fail?
"The answer to that is both lawyers and some nonlawyers," says HALT's Mr. Turner, who wants laymen to take over some routine legal chores.
He also advocates what he calls "more effective use of lawyers" by ordinary folks who may educate themselves on the Internet.

A dying dinosaur

"The practice of law will resemble a trade more than a priesthood," predicts William H. "Chip" Mellor III, president of the Institute for Justice, one of many public interest law firms in the District.
Mr. Mellor says change is needed for a profession that often leaves lawyer and client "with a nagging sense that something is amiss" even when they win.
But he expects quality will drain out of the profession as prospective clients eliminate lawyers as the middlemen and turn to the Internet, self-help software and paralegals.
"High-caliber people currently practicing law will increasingly opt into other careers that are more rewarding; other such people will never choose law school in the first place," he says.
"What is changing is the eventual extinction of the solo law office. The generalist is a dinosaur that is dying out," says Gilbert K. Davis, a generalist in Fairfax County, Va.
Mr. Davis is better known than most because he won a Supreme Court fight against President Clinton's efforts to avoid submitting to civil courts in the Paula Jones case, which later was settled by other lawyers.
"It's very difficult to get enough money from ordinary people to justify what has to be done in their case," Mr. Davis says.
His workload includes civil cases taken on a contingency-fee basis as well as criminal cases with paying clients in small towns in southern Virginia and West Virginia.

Over the rainbow

Mr. Paul, who turns over the reins of the ABA Friday to Martha Barnett of Tallahassee, Fla., says diversity among lawyers on prosecution, defense and the bench is the answer to many problems in American justice.
His crusade is driven by that motive, he says, not because he has a little Chickasaw Indian blood.
"By 2050, when we have a society 50 percent people of color, a justice system 92 and 1/2 percent white won't work," says Mr. Paul, senior partner of an Oklahoma City law firm.
He estimates that about 12 percent of ABA members are racial or ethnic minorities. The ABA does not keep statistics on members' demographics, but Mr. Paul did some research as founding chairman of a committee to examine future challenges facing practitioners.
"The legal profession is the link between the rule of law and the society we serve, so the legal profession must reflect the society it serves," he says. "I think we're on a highway to serious problems."

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Part I: Modern-day jousters continue to battle for respect

Part II: 'Jackpot justice' gets best defense

Part III: Law partners share wealth from huge judgements

Part IV: Legal practitioners almost bulletproof

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