Lawyers In Cyberspace

April 02, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

If you've got a modem, you've got a lawyer. Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti has opened a branch office in cyberspace.

The prestigious Baltimore-based law firm recently hung out an electronic shingle as a publisher on the Internet -- making articles by its lawyers available worldwide to users of the far-flung network of computer networks.

Attorney Kenneth C. Bass III, a partner in Venable's Washington office who spearheaded the effort, says the electronic publication lets the firm showcase its talents and technological sophistication without the type of "blatant advertising" that would be contrary to the old-line firm's traditions.

Still, if a potential client's first reaction after reading an article by a Venable lawyer is "let's talk about it," the firm makes it easy by including the writers' electronic mail addresses.

Venable has long been influential, but now it might just be the best "wired" law firm in the country. Mr. Bass said that as far as he can determine, Venable is the first law firm with direct access to the Internet and the first to publish there under its own name.

Matthew Bromberg, marketing manager of the Lexis Counsel Connect on-line service, said one law firm in San Francisco had posted resumes of its lawyers on the Internet, but not a full-scale publication.

"It's not nearly as professional or impressive as what Venable has done," Mr. Bromberg said. "They've certainly taken that to an extent I've never seen before."

The Internet, which has been growing at a frantic pace in recent years, connects an increasingly diverse group of professors, students, engineers, business people, high-technology workers and just plain folks in more than 100 countries. Nobody really knows how many people use the Internet, but current estimates range up to 30 million people worldwide.

Venable's electronic periodicals, carried on the World Wide Web segment of the Internet, are sophisticated works of programming. They incorporate graphics and headlines as well as plain text. If you click on a highlighted reference, the program takes you to a related article or document, which could either be in the Venable file or some other data base, through a "hypertext" link.

For instance, when you contact the World Wide Web through the Cello program, you can click on a highlighted reference to Harris vs. Forklift Systems and the program will take you into a data base of Supreme Court decisions at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. When you finish reading the justices' opinions, a click on a return button will take you back to the Venable newsletter.

The Venable service is also available through the Mosaic Internet-access program, which offers superior graphics, but that program's hypertext link is still being debugged, Mr. Bass said.

So far, two Venable publications are on-line -- the Information Law Department's "The NII Oracle" and the Labor Law Department's "Workplace Law Update." Mr. Bass said the Business Law Department's "CAR LAW" automotive law publication will go on-line soon, while a Health Law section is under development.

The firm's interest in the Internet was piqued through its representation of clients in the communications industry, said Mr. Bass, a member of the Information Law group. As a result of that work, several Venable lawyers were no strangers to cyberspace.

"There are a few of us who have been living there part-time," said Mr. Bass.

Denis Campbell, Venable's marketing director, noted that Venable has many clients in the communication and computer industries who operate on the cutting edge of technology. The Internet link represents an attempt by the firm to keep pace, he said.

"The more you can talk like your clients and speak to your clients in language they understand, the more they are impressed with your abilities," Mr. Campbell said. And with today's law school students spending more time on-line than in the library stacks, Venable's Internet presence could be a good recruiting tool, he said.

The service went on-line in mid-March, but the firm did not announce its presence on the Internet until last week, Mr. Bass said. Still, he said, the firm had received a strongly positive response from Internet users as far away as Australia.

"By and large, it's been a bunch of people who have expressed interest and amazement that a law firm was getting on the 'Net," Mr. Bass said.

If you find the idea of lawyers cruising the electronic superhighway unappealing, you might just have to get used to it. Mr. Bass said he has had inquiries from other law firms about how to set up such a service, and a spokeswoman for the American Bar Association expressed interest in the Internet as well.

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