Originally created 05/08/00

Only a few online legal sites are helpful



Trying to figure out legal issues without a juris doctorate on your wall or a lawyer's phone number in your Rolodex is a daunting and potentially risky business. But sometimes all you need is a little information and not somebody on retainer.

Law isn't known for being a particularly user-friendly business, but there are a few sites on the Web that can help you answer many general legal questions. Here is a look at some of the sites.

The American Bar Association site (www.abanet.org) is aimed primarily at lawyers, naturally, though it does feature some information for the general public.

Go there with a specific question and the odds of coming away with useful information are a bit low, but there are a few resources there that you won't generally find elsewhere. If you need information on how to file a complaint against a lawyer or how to find legal help if you can't afford an attorney, this site can help.

There are also special packages there covering particular topics of interest, such as a guide to privacy in cyberspace or its guide to law and the elderly. The main point at this Web site overall, however, is that law is best left to the pros.

FreeAdvice.com (www.freeadvice.com) has a somewhat cheesy look to its interface (the "dot" in its dot-com logo is an animated gavel, for starters) and an annoying habit of using pop-up browser windows to plug an affiliated site, but this site is a decent and comprehensive resource for quick answers to questions about the law.

One caveat, though -- the site seems to assume that visitors here are primarily interested in figuring out whether they need an attorney or have grounds for a legal case, so surfers interested in more general legal topics might want to look elsewhere. The main thrust of this site is lining up lawyers with potential clients, and so every scrap of legal information offered here, under topics such as business law, criminal law and insurance law, is followed by an "I want a lawyer" link button, which surfers can click on to find an appropriate attorney or firm.

If you are on the hunt for a lawyer, finding one through this site is a very streamlined process: Just click on the appropriate geographic location and general subject matter. Next thing you know, you're looking at a list of addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of lawyers who specialize in whatever topic you were looking into.

Nolo.com (nolo.com) sells books, software and legal forms, but the site also features a surprisingly comprehensive online library of legal information written in plain English.

The Nolo.com State Law Research Center offers a quick and relatively easy way to look up local laws; Web surfers who want to go straight to the source can also look up U.S. Code and Federal Regulations.

There's also a practical advice column, called Auntie Nolo, which answers questions on a wide range of legal topics with useful and well thought out pointers. Because this site is in the business of selling books and software -- and not keeping lawyers employed -- it isn't afraid to advise people of situations in which a lawyer might not be necessary.

FindLaw (findlaw.com) is a portal site dedicated to the law that claims up front that it has something for everyone -- lawyers, students, the public and business. FindLaw certainly does appear to be striving to be a Yahoo equivalent for those looking for information about law and the legal profession.

The interface is a bit cluttered, and the overall experience here seems a little disorganized (there's even a link to a map site thrown in, strangely enough), but this site seems to have the most information available within a few mouse clicks.

The USLaw.com site (www.uslaw.com) is unique in its 24-hour "Ask a Lawyer" chat service, which lets surfers who register with the site lob questions at real, live lawyers any time. (FreeAdvice.com also offers lawyer chats, but with limited hours.)

This site is nicely put together and well organized. Each of the major topics feature several relevant essays and articles of interest, as well as links to lawyers or firms that specialize in each topic (and have paid to be listed with the site). Each topic lets users surf through USLaw.com's library of information, and many of the topics have e-mail newsletters available to users who really want to stay informed about the latest developments on a legal subject matter.

USLaw.com is so eager to be comprehensive that it occasionally swerves away from dispensing legal information to giving out general life advice. (One subtopic advises users not to put up with rude service from their banks, for example.) But, in its favor, this site would rather come up empty-handed on a search than turn up off-topic information, a quality that search engine designers across the Web would do well to imitate.