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Column no. 1. March 1995

Copyright 1995 Robert J. Ambrogi

The Internet: A Revolution In Law Practice

This is the first of a series of columns about the Internet, intended to show lawyers how this rapidly evolving resource can help them become more efficient and effective. Future columns will look in-depth at the many legal resources on the Net and how lawyers are using them. Columns will offer advice on the technical side as well, showing how best to get started on the information superhighway. Columns will also bring the latest legal news from Cyberspace.

By Robert J. Ambrogi

Imagine instant access to virtually unlimited sources of legal information. Imagine receiving court decisions within hours of their release. Imagine consulting experts in any legal field, anywhere in the world, and having their answer within minutes. Imagine having statutes, bills and government documents at your fingertips. Imagine huge files of legal forms and pleadings at your disposal.

Now imagine that this is all free and available to you right in your office, no matter how small or remote. No travel to distant libraries. No expensive search fees.

On top of it all, throw in a largely untapped, international pool of potential clients waiting to hear from you.

Welcome to the Internet -- the main thoroughfare of the information superhighway.

The Internet is the most significant change in law practice since the advent of on-line research. Indeed, some predict its vast libraries of free information will put on-line research services out of business within a decade.

But it is more than information. It is marketing. It is networking. It is instant communication.

On the Internet, law firms are setting up shop, bar associations are being formed, contacts are being made, cases are being referred. Just two years ago, lawyers on the Internet were adventurers, charting new territory. Now, lawyers not on the Net face fast becoming obsolete.

A Sampling Of The Net

Future columns will explore the Internet in depth. For now, though, a sampling of what it offers lawyers.

Information. For lawyers, the best bargain on the Internet is the access it provides to information -- court decisions and dockets, statutes, bills, government documents, law libraries, legal journals, and much more -- almost all of it at no cost!

Available on the Net are the full text of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, posted the day they are issued, within hours of their release. You can even have either the decisions or synopses sent to you automatically by e-mail as the court issues them.

All of the U.S. appeals courts and many U.S. district and bankruptcy courts likewise now make their decisions and dockets available on-line. Some state courts are following suit. Most of the courts that have not yet done so are preparing to go on-line.

Also available free via the Internet are the complete texts of the U.S. Code and the Code of Federal Regulations. Search them for key words or download the full text. Congress is adding to the Internet the full text of legislation, the full text of the Congressional Record, and other legislative documents. States are following suit, putting their laws and legislation on-line.

What else is on-line? The complete Uniform Commercial Code, the Federal Register, Securities and Exchange Commission filings, international laws and treaties, model jury instructions, law-library catalogs, a host of federal agencies, Bureau of the Census information, banks of briefs, uniform laws, the Rules of Professional Conduct, and much more.

Need to locate a lawyer halfway across the country, but don't have those bulky and expensive lawyers' directories? West Publishing has put its entire Legal Directory on the Net. Free. Need to find a witness who has disappeared or want to search for a defendant's hidden assets? The Internet offers access to phone listings, municipal directories, deed and lien registries, and other vital information throughout the country -- even the world.

This is just a sampling of the information on the Net, and not a day goes by that there is not more available.

Communication. Electronic mail is reason enough for every lawyer to be on the Internet. Using e-mail, you can send messages, letters, even large text files, anywhere in the world, in an instant and at no cost. Why pay to fax a draft to your out-of-state associate, when you can transmit the actual text file free into his or her computer? Why play telephone tag with a client when you can send an instant message and receive a reply just as quickly? E-mail saves time and money.

Conversation. The liveliest conversation among lawyers is not to be found at the local bar association or even the local bar -- it is on the Internet. Here can be found spirited debates over everything from the latest legal development to the best time-and-billing software, from the outrageousness of bar dues to the best strategy for defending O.J. Simpson.

These are not discussion groups in the literal sense. They are a series of electronic messages regarding a particular topic posted in a "forum" or "news group" for anyone to read. A discussion "thread" might begin, for example, when someone pondering whether to subscribe to Westlaw or Lexis posts a message asking which one lawyers prefer. Invariably, this will produce a rash of replies from the critics and defenders of each service.

Discussion groups may include only lawyers -- found mostly on the commercial services that cater to lawyers, notably Lexis Counsel Connect and Law Journal Extra -- or they may include non-lawyers -- notably the Legal Forum on CompuServe. Lawyer-only groups provide a medium to exchange ideas and discuss topics of current import. They may offer the most to small-firm lawyers or legal specialists -- those with the fewest opportunities to bounce their ideas off colleagues. The "mixed" groups provide ... well -- more spice. They allow lawyers an opportunity to defend our profession, to explain the workings of the law, and sometimes to obtain new clients.

Marketing. Net-savvy clients want net-savvy lawyers. Law firms large and small are establishing themselves on the Internet, and they are not there for the climate. Many firms now have sites on the Internet akin to electronic brochures, full of information about the firm, its lawyers and its practice areas. Law firm "home pages" on the World Wide Web include photos and resumes of lawyers as well as the text of their scholarly articles. Other firms are setting up information sites on the Internet, offering consumers databases of information related to the firm's specialty. At least one firm claims to exist only on the Internet -- the first "virtual" law firm.

Fraternization. There have been at least fledgling attempts among lawyers on the Internet to create a "virtual" bar association -- one that would draw its members, hold its meetings, and otherwise function exclusively on-line. But more closely resembling bar associations -- at least in the opportunities they offer for networking and sharing -- are the on-line services that cater to the information and resource needs of lawyers. The grandparent of these services is ABANet, followed two years ago by Lexis Counsel Connect and just recently by Law Journal Extra. West Publishing is developing its own service.

These services are akin to club houses. They offer lawyers a place to share resources through libraries of downloadable files and to discuss matters of mutual concern through on-line chat groups. They allow lawyers to congregate by practice area or geographic location. They offer educational courses. They sponsor on-line forums. And they serve as repositories of the essentials of the information age, providing e-mail, gateways to the Internet and other electronic services, personalized news digests, and other custom functions.

Information. Communication. Conversation. Marketing. Fraternization. Lawyers are seizing the opportunities offered via the information superhighway. In the process, they are changing the face of law practice.

[Next month: Lexis Counsel Connect vs. Law Journal Extra.]

Robert J. Ambrogi is a lawyer and arbitrator and the former editor of Lawyers Weekly USA and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at (978) 546-7898.