Caveat Emptor

I am a champion of on-line resources for legal and general research and drafting. As a lawyer, I take for granted that I can find information that is both reliable and relevant without having to dedicate excessive thought to the process. Having been trained as a lawyer and having performed research for years, I can quickly separate the wheat from the information chaff.

But what happens when the average person approaches research and, more importantly, legal research or document preparation on the web without training and expertise? They may well fall into a “trap” created by non-legal sites masquerading as reliable legal resources. Richard Granat at the eLawyering blog posted an entry recently on Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Information Web Site Providers. Mr. Granat points out that, in 2003, the American Bar Association approved a list of best practice guidelines for legal information web site providers. The guidelines are quite basic and the ABA has not put any teeth into them, so the on-line “legal” services realm remains fraught with some peril. As Mr. Granat points out, legitimate sites will be following these best practices as a matter of course. Sites that are missing contact information, fail to identify which jurisdictions will accept the forms or the date the content was created or updated should set off some warning bells.

Another lawyer or seasoned researcher will quickly recognize those sites that purport to be something they are not. However, the casual observer might be deceived into believing that the information offered on these sites is valid and acceptable to the courts in the desired jurisdiction. Mr. Granat identifies a law firm-sponsored site and a non-law firm-sponsored site that provide polar examples of how such legal services should and shouldn’t be marketed.

Asking a lay person to recognize the distinctions identified by Mr. Granat presents a certain catch-22: the sites are designed to “trap” the unwary into purchasing “legal” services that are anything but legal by preying on their inexperience. The better police force is made up of our own profession and our governing entities and organizations such as the ABA. If on-line or e-lawyering is ever to take off and challenge the brick and mortar firms, consumers must be secure in their belief that they are getting the genuine article. “Caveat emptor” is a recognized precept of a free-market society. I am just not sure it should be used where legal services are concerned.