It Could Be A Lot Easier For Consumers To Find A Lawyer Via The Internet

It’s not as easy to find a lawyer on the Internet as it should be.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 12/1/1997; Student Lawyer magazine, “Online” column; publisher: American Bar Association

My trusty Corolla finally died, about a week before the day I had decided to trade it in and buy a new car. Although I tried not to get sentimentally attached to that car, I was. After all, I set many records with the Toyota: the car I’ve owned the longest, the car I’ve put the most miles on, and the car with the most mileage (I bought it used). So when the time came to trade in the car, I wanted to make sure it went to a good home.

Since the car was not in running condition, the car dealership would not accept it as a trade-in. I decided to donate it to a charitable organization instead. Ever the late-night TV junkie (or at least I have been in recent years), I had seen many advertisements for the National Kidney Foundation’s used car donation program. With my trusty Web browser in hand, I searched for “car and kidney” at Yahoo and found the toll-free phone number (1-800-488-CARS) for the National Kidney Foundation (http://www.bbsnet.com/NKF/car.htm) as the first result of my search. A few calls and a little paperwork later, my Toyota is helping a worthy cause.

With the help of the Web, it was incredibly easy to donate my car to the National Kidney Foundation. So why is it still so hard to find a lawyer on the Internet?

In Search of Lawyers

How might a non-lawyer find a lawyer on the Internet today?

If Net users know the name of the organization they are looking for, they will guess the domain name of that organization. It is a safe bet to guess that fedex.com is the domain name for FedEx, and that apple.com is the domain name for Apple Computer. But without knowing who publishes directories of lawyers, consumers are not likely to associate any brand-name organization with lawyers. I strongly suspect that the average consumer does not know that the American Bar Association, state bar associations, Martindale-Hubbell, and West’s Legal Directory are all good resources for finding lawyers. And even if they did, none of those organizations have guessable domain names – which means they have little value for consumers.

Second, Net users are likely to search various Web directories using simple search terms. I tried searching for “lawyers” using the Web’s top directories (Yahoo, AltaVista, Infoseek, and Excite). Each Web directory shows about ten sites by default on their results page. Many sites were found by my searches, but the sites that could help consumers most – the American Bar Association, Martindale-Hubbell, and West Publishing – were not among the found sites. And only one state bar association (Mississippi’s http://www.mslawyer.com) was found.

The Yahoo search found an index of lawyers jokes, and all of the search results pages contained banner advertisements from companies that had purchased the right to display their ads when the word “lawyers” was used by Web surfers. (Many major companies have been purchasing the search terms of their competitors’ product and company names – search on “Windows” or “Web” and find an ad for… IBM? No kidding. But that’s fodder for a future column.)

Third, Net users may simply try the best guessable domain names related to their search goals. Users looking for shareware will be happy when they find C|Net’s http://www.shareware.com. And users looking for flowers can happily browse the pages of http://www.flowers.com. But users looking for lawyers will be disappointed to find nothing at http://www.lawyers.com. The domain name lawyers.com is registered to a three person law firm in San Diego, but the Web site http://www.lawyers.com points to the firm’s Internet service provider. What could be a tremendously valuable resource to the Internet community – and to consumers in particular – has gone unused for over three years.

Lawyers and Doctors and Dentists, Oh My!

In defense of the legal community, the doctors.com and dentists.com Web sites are also useless. But why should it be so hard to find professional help on the Internet when it’s so easy to find flowers and shareware?

Let’s take a closer look at the medical and dental professions to see how those professions cater to consumers. The American Dental Association’s Web site has an almost-guessable domain name (http://www.ada.org). The domain name ada.com – which would be ideal – is registered to a computer company. Once at the ADA’s site, there is a conspicuous link to “consumer information,” which leads to a page with an equally conspicuous “how to find a dentist” link. After many clicks and minutes, I found names and phone numbers of state dental societies and helpful recommendations like “as a coworker” designed to help me find a dentist. However, I did not find any list of dentists.

The American Medical Association (http://www.ama-assn.org/) was no better, and its domain name was much worse. The name ama.com is currently “on hold” (which often happens when a registrant fails to pay the registration fee to the InterNIC), and ama.org is registered to the American Marketing Association (no surprise there). But I was able to quickly and easily find a doctor by name, specialty, and location. Searching on my home town, I found several general practice physicians, and I was able to find out where they went to medical school, when they graduated, and where they performed their residency training. This information was provided for AMA members and nonmembers alike. More information is included for AMA members, including a map to their offices.

The bankers got a jump on the lawyers, registering aba.com for the American Bankers Association. And aba.org is registered to the American Birding Association! From the home page of Web site of the American Bar Association (http://www.abanet.org/), there is no obvious place to go to find a lawyer. After some head-scratching, users might click on “public info,” where they’d find phone numbers for various lawyer referral services. But there’s no list of lawyers to be found.

Consumer ISPs Weigh In

Consumer Internet Service Providers have taken it upon themselves (individually, not collectively) to catalog information for their users. The five largest consumer ISPs (America Online, 10 million; MSN 2.3 million; Earthlink 350,000; GTE, 180,000) have about 13 million subscribers. In many cases, these companies have struck deals with Web directories and other content providers to make content available to subscribers’ start pages – the pages that load automatically when subscribers start their Web browsers. For example, AOL’s NetFind service is powered by Excite’s search engine. So these services are helpful in pointing subscribers to various value-added Web sites (such as MSN’s CarPoint), but they don’t do a better job than the Web directories themselves of finding lawyers.

What about Usenet (Internet newsgroups)? Forget it. There are only a handful of law-related Usenet newsgroups, and little substantive discussion goes on there. Which is not to say that Usenet is useless, just that nobody has bothered to invest the time into that medium – yet. There is a movement afoot to create a Usenet II (called “net.*”) which would restrict, among other things, commercial postings. But that’s a long way off, because there’s no money in doing something for free. Which is exactly my point.

Net.Charity

Perhaps the solution to the problem of finding lawyers on the Web lies in finding a charitable solution to the problem, rather than a commercial one. Perhaps the National Kidney Foundation is on to something. I’m sure they had doubters when their used car program was proposed, but sometimes the improbable is worth believing in. (After all, I’m a Red Sox fan!)

Here’s the idea: create a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping consumers nationwide find lawyers. The American Bar Association may be able to help here, and doing so would be in line with the ABA’s goals of serving its members. At least when it comes to finding a lawyer, what is good for lawyers is good for consumers. Second, buy the domain name lawyers.com and dedicate that site to helping consumers find lawyers. Nonprofit organizations such as state and local bar associations and lawyer referral services would be listed for free on the lawyers.com site. Commercial services such as Martindale-Hubbell and West’s Legal Directory that provide free Web-based services should also be listed for free. Others could purchase advertising space on the site. Third, ask the major Web directory companies to donate the rights to the search term “lawyers” to the lawyers.com site. This way, whenever people search for lawyers at the major Web directories, they’d see the banner ad for lawyers.com. Since the lawyers.com organization would be a nonprofit organization, the Web directory companies may be able to take a tax deduction for donating various search terms. This model could easily be extended to include lawyers and doctors.

I can think of no single thing that the legal community could do for the Internet community that would better serve the legal needs of consumers. Such a venture would require incredible cooperation among law firms, bar associations, and legal vendors. Done right, it could improve the image of lawyers in the eyes of all Web surfers, who now only find things like lawyer jokes when they try to find lawyers. Throw in a few late night television ads and it could be as easy to find a lawyer on the Net as it is to donate your used cars to the National Kidney Foundation.

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