- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2000

Neal Simon doesn't have anything against lawyers. In fact, he thinks everyone should be able to get one. But they might want to check out his Web site first.

"We're opening up the law to a population that has been intimidated by the law," said Mr. Simon, president and chief executive officer of USlaw.com, a 6-month-old Silver Spring, Md. company.

"Some people don't want to go to a lawyer and immediately have the $150-an-hour meter start ticking." Mr. Simon's Internet company provides users access to legal information about leasing a home or even divorcing a spouse.

"We're not practicing law, we're providing legal solutions," said Mr. Simon, who is not a lawyer.

He said that he saw a need to capture this space on the Internet because he saw other industries accommodating consumers via the Web. "There weren't any good resources for nonlaywers," he said.

Mr. Simon cited his wife who logs on to the Internet whenever there is a medical issue in the family. So, he immediately saw a need for something similar in the legal field.

In a study conducted by the company, 90 percent of Web users endorsed the idea of a legal Internet site, and 30 percent said they had logged on to one.

Mr. Simon said that in most cases people who will not visit an attorney and would opt to use the Web think seeing an attorney is expensive, time consuming and aggravating.

The site allows consumers or small businesses to select from a list of 17,000 lawyers from California to South Carolina if they actually want one.

Every attorney in the directory is screened for a license and a minimum level, three years, of expertise. They must also be in good standing with the state. "This is not a yellow pages," Mr Simon said.

Users can type in their zip codes and issue topics and get a listing for lawyers in their area.

"It's a value-added resource for our users," Mr. Simon said. "Our objective is to provide them with 10 to 20 choices of screened attorneys."

However, those users who want to do an initial search of legal issues can log on to the site, browse a selection of legal books designed for the consumer, read articles on a variety of legal topics or log on to the "Ask a Lawyer" chat line and receive information about legal issues 24 hours a day, seven days week from certified, licensed attorneys.

Don Groom, the executive director of Chatlaw.com, a wholly-owned subsidiary of USlaw.com, and who also oversees the 24-hour chat line, said the 16 lawyers under him go through an intensive six-hour training seminar to make sure they know how to handle users questions.

The lawyers get a lesson in all policies and procedures of the company and how to use the legal resources and the chat software, Mr. Groom said. Then, they are given sample questions and later conduct live chats under the supervision of a senior attorney.

"Legal advice is suggesting what they should do," Mr Groom said. "Presenting information options and alternatives is another matter." However, Mr. Groom said the lawyers never say the user does not need a lawyer because the attorneys never advise.

Bonnie Brooks, a principal analyst for Creative Strategies. a strategic marketing and consulting company for the computer industry said she thinks USlaw.com is one of the most usable consumer sites on the Internet, something that could become "a favorite site."

She said paying to have an attorney tell you the law in person is money wasted if people can get the same information on line at home. "A number of lawyers will give you a free hour, but you still have to go to their office and set up an appointment."

She said she trusts USlaw.com because the lawyers on the "Ask a Lawyer" chat line will be unbiased because they are not looking for business. "That sets them apart," she said.

"We're more of a teacher student than an attorney client," Mr. Groom said.

Mr. Simon said that in many cases, users might not even need an attorney, just some information about their situation.

Most legal issues are not really lawsuits, most issues are wanting to get out of a moving violation ticket or needing a lease agreement, he said.

USlaw.com even allows users to draw up legal documents such as those lease agreements or even wills.

"In three to five minutes, you will have an employment agreement," Mr. Simon said. For, now users can draw up documents for free. In February, they can draw them up for $15 to $25.

Mr. Simon said that lawyers like the site because they get free advertising, at least for now, and they get clients that are more informed about their cases.

"Most lawyers prefer a more knowledgeable customer," he said. Lawyers generally provide free consultation anyway, he said.

"We are saving them part of that time."

Eventually, the company will begin charging prominent lawyers who want a more detailed listing of themselves on the site.

The company is projecting $50 million in revenues in the next two years from users drawing up contracts, the lawyers' listing, advertisers on the site, companies that sponsor live conference chats and even the on-line bookshop. The bookshop sells the consumer-oriented legal books in partnership with Amazon.com and Beyond.com.

Since July, the company has grown from one employee, Mr. Simon, to an estimated 40 by the end of the month.

"We're committed to dominating this space on the Internet," Mr. Simon said.

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