Solicitors grasp the Net

Anthony Middleton finds out how lawyers are making the most of cyberspace

The arm of the law has always been long, but it now seems to reach far into the ether. A few weeks ago, London solicitors Schilling & Lom responded to threats that defamatory material about a client was about to be distributed on the Internet by obtaining a High Court injunction against someone known only by their two e-mail addresses.

The recipient of the injunction was foreign, but the firm successfully argued that given the nature of the Net, any breach of the injunction abroad would bring the matter under British jurisdiction.

This was not only a sign that the forces of law and order are moving into cyberspace, but that lawyers generally are beginning to grasp the possibilities of the Net.

About 45 firms of solicitors and chambers have Net sites. Many are simply brochures put up by an enthusiast member of staff which offer a basic idea of the firm's specialities.

Others are more ambitious. The commercial lawyers Rowe and Maw set up their site in May. It features detailed news bulletins and articles on specialist legal areas. Rowe's marketing director, Chris Pullen, says: "The purpose of the Net is to be interactive rather than just provide a dumping ground for useless information. We want to encourage business and provide commentary on legal issues. This is good for the firm's profile."

Mr Pullen admits that while the firm has not gained any customers, it has had some feedback, much of it from students looking for jobs. The firm sees the Net as a marketing tool rather than a serious aid to the daily work of the firm's lawyers.

Barrister Nick Lockett, who specialises in computer and online law, says his work is vastly speeded up by the Net. He often handles cases in which solicitors approach him via e-mail. "A major handicap in the UK is that official law reports cannot be put on the Net as they are copyright of the Lord Chancellor. Despite that, a few barristers are speeding up their practice through the Internet."

He is helping to the Internet Lawyers Association to train lawyers to use the new technology as well as advising the Government on how the Net should be regulated.

Viveca Cameron, an independent criminal barrister, created the site Court On The Web as a free service. It explains how tribunals and courts operate and offers basic advice for witness and victims. "No other site covered this for the lay person, and I am keen on people knowing how the system works," she says. "It also helps me in research by putting me in contact with other people." However while she can vent her spleen over new legislation on the page, as a barrister she cannot give free advice by e-mail.

This is available, however, from a number of sources on the Net. The newsgroup, uk.legal, which is an open forum often features people asking for, and getting, advice from a number of lawyers. But to get to this you often have to wade through vitriolic abuse directed at lawyers and the paranoid ramblings of conspiracy theorists.

More specialised advice comes from Birmingham firm, Tyndallwoods, which helps community groups online and among others, there is a group of lawyers specialising in the law as it relates to, of all things, horses, which will give a free opinion.

Delia Venables, a computer consultant, recently conducted a survey of law firms on the Net. She found that while some had spent about pounds 150 to get an online presence, one, Jeffrey Green Russell in London, spent pounds 50,000 using a professional designer. "There is still confusion over the significance of the Net. Some are totally oblivious; others realise it is going to become indispensable."

Graham Ross, founder of the Allied Lawyers Response Team, a network of personal injury lawyers, has been online for over a year. This, he says, is an integral part of his business particularly when looking for scientific evidence for multiple actions. "It has revolutionised research for multiple actions by giving access to electronically published data all over the world."

Mr Ross has created panels of online scientists to deal with types of injury. In the past six months about 30 cases have come to him through the Net. He is unabashed about encouraging whistle-blowers to approach him on the Net. "People call us ambulance-chasers and say there is too much litigation. I believe there is not enough."

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