Just like with many other professions and disciplines that require intellectual engagement, the legal profession has been transformed by the World Wide Web and other advances in Internet technology. One of the influential aspects of the Information Age seems to be the ability of the Internet to advance the construct of a global village by eliminating geographical limitations and boundaries. The utopian concept of a global village does not always seem to translate well into the jurisdictional structure of legal practice, particularly in a common law system like the United States.
The Disruptive Consequence of Empowering Non-Lawyers
Dissemination of legal information is something that the Internet seems to do too well. The World Wide Web has become a treasure trove of legal information, free for the entire world to seek and enjoy. Legal information such as laws, statutes and rules have always been meant to be freely available to the public, yet publishers of legal information and education found a way to profit from this democratic ideal by publishing bodies of law and rule making, sometimes with annotations, for many years. The same can be said of court decisions and transcripts of hearings, as case law reporters like West Publishing profited by applying taxonomy and case digest indexing.
Enter the Legal Information Institute (LII) at Cornell Law School, the Commonwealth LII, and the Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) international collectives. These noble organizations advocate open and free access to legal information and resources around the world. Such initiatives have been the bane for many attorneys who in the past relied on their ability to access legal information and knowledge for clients. It could be argued that the information that FALM seeks to empower humanity with has always been available from courthouses and law libraries, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that many legal practices have seen their flow of clients diminished. The way many people see it, FALM is simply a self-help legal resource.
The ambitious efforts of FALM are disruptive in the sense that it focuses too much on the principles of open access and the marvels of Internet technology that, but not enough on the fact that the philosophical underpinnings of legal information are normally not within the purview of a layperson. For example, the members of a charity organization that is stripped from federal funding because the government believes it is religious could file a lawsuit to recover funding, but the case could quickly turn constitutional due to religion being involved. It is not reasonable for an average citizen to read, understand and apply matters regarding the Establishment Clause and the complex nature of landmark cases such as Lemon v. Kurtzman.
The True Value of Online Legal Forms
Transactional attorneys have been wrongly maligned by the wide availability of web sites that peddle online legal forms for either very little or nothing. The early incarnations of these web sites were crude operations that essentially sold forms commonly used in civil or family matters such as real estate closings and divorces. Business was brisk and profitable in those days, as there was little competition. These days, many of these sites offer legal forms for free and even minimize the role of transactional attorneys by insinuating to clients that all these lawyers do is fill out blank forms.
Many web sites dedicated to the free or low-cost distribution of online legal forms are owned and operated by attorneys who end up offering their services to clients who in the beginning were only interested in legal forms.
It is preposterous to think that FALM and online legal forms will be the demise of one of the most honorable and significant professions. The only attorneys affected by the Internet are those who fail to grasp the endless business opportunities it provides. There is a lot that lawyers can learn from the Internet, but only if they take the time to educate themselves. Quite a few Online Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses and seminars deal with subjects related to the use of social media, Internet marketing and online branding. Staying competitive in the Information Age is a matter of being informed.
Cathy Sanders is an attorney, web designer and content contributor for Top Web Design Schools, a site exploring the industry’s various degrees and ranking of the top online schools for web design.