The Texas Probate Web Site

 

USING THE INTERNET
IN AN ESTATE PLANNING PRACTICE

By GLENN M. KARISCH
Barnes & Karisch, P. C.
2901 Bee Caves Road, Suite D
Austin, Texas 78746
(512) 328-8355/FAX (512) 328-8413
email:
karisch@texasprobate.net
www.texasprobate.net

Copyright © 1998 By Glenn M. Karisch, All Rights Reserved


Table of Contents

I. INTRODUCTION
II. INTERNET BASICS FOR THE NOVICE
A. Connecting to the Internet
1. Personal Modem Connection
2. ISDN
3. T1
B. Basic Internet Features
1. Email
2. Web Browsing
III. USING THE INTERNET TO COMMUNICATE WITH OTHERS
IV. USING THE INTERNET TO MARKET YOUR PRACTICE
A. Web Page Basics
B. Advanced Web Page Techniques
1. Graphics
2. Making Text Files Easy to Download
3. Forms
4. Web Site Search Engine
5. Extranet
C. Web Site -- Ethical Considerations
D. Marketing Strategies
1. Who Is the Target Audience?
2. Why Should a Member of the Target Audience Visit the Site?
3. If You Build It, Will They Come?
a. Commercial Services
b. Free Web Indexes and Search Engines
c. Non-Internet-Related Marketing
V. USING THE INTERNET FOR LEGAL RESEARCH
A. Free Research
B. Fee-Based Research
VI. CONCLUSION

APPENDIX A -- LEGAL RESEARCH LINKS
APPENDIX B -- GLOSSARY OF TECHNICAL TERMS
APPENDIX C -- ADVERTISING REVIEW COMMITTEE MATERIALS
ENDNOTES

USING THE INTERNET IN AN ESTATE PLANNING PRACTICE

I. INTRODUCTION

It seems rather silly writing a paper on ways to use the Internet in an estate planning practice. Things are changing so quickly with computers generally and on the Internet in particular that whatever is written is destined to be obsolete almost by the time it is published.(1) Recent reports indicate that traffic on the Internet doubles every 100 days.

The difficulty of writing a paper on this topic is increased by the diversity of the audience. Things have finally gotten to the point where few attorneys are willing to admit that they are not "on the Internet," but my perception is that many Internet wannabes say they are "on the Internet" because they know someone in their office has an email account. On the other hand, many estate planning attorneys -- the majority, perhaps? -- are quite facile with the Internet, and many have knowledge far exceeding the author's.

This paper is divided into four subjects: (1) Internet basics for the novice; (2) Using the Internet to communicate with others; (3) Using the Internet to market your practice; and (4) Using the Internet for research. Internet veterans may wish to skip the first section entirely, quickly scan the second subject and focus on the third and fourth subjects.

Technical terms which are italicized in this paper are defined in the glossary attached to this paper as Appendix B.

The author acknowledges the help of many persons in preparation of this paper, including members of the Texas Probate email mailing list, the American Bar Association Probate and Trust Law (ABA-PTL) email mailing list and Kathleen Ford Bay.

II. INTERNET BASICS FOR THE NOVICE

The Internet is a largely unregulated web of computers (and computer users) which are connected together (through phone lines, local area networks (LANs) and high-speed connections) and share information. The Internet began in academia and the military but has become increasingly commercial in nature.

A. Connecting to the Internet

The first step in using the Internet is getting one's computer connected. Some computers are connected full-time to the Internet. Most law firms and other small businesses and individuals do not have full-time connections to the Internet, however.(2) Persons who are not connected full-time directly to the Internet access the Internet (usually by a telephone line) through the services of an Internet service provider (ISP).

There are national and local ISPs. The largest and best known ISP is America Online. Each city and most towns also have local companies which provide services. For example, the author uses Illuminati Online (io.com), an Austin company providing ISP services in Austin and Houston.

Here are the most common ways to connect to the Internet through an ISP:

1. Personal Modem Connection

Most users (including the author) connect to an ISP through a modem located in or attached to the user's personal computer. A modem is a device which makes it possible to send a computer's digital information over traditional analog telephone lines (plain old telephone service, or POTS). To connect in this way, the user must establish a dial-up account with an ISP. This usually costs around $20-30 per month for unlimited (or, at least, a high number of hours of) use.

Once the account is established, the user causes his or her modem to dial the ISP's local telephone number (to avoid long-distance charges) and, after an electronic handshake (the high-pitched noise that computers and fax machines make over the telephone line when connecting) the user enters his username and password (or has his or her computer automatically enter such information).

In order to have full access to the Internet, including all those pretty Web pages, the user must have a SLIP or PPP connection. Without SLIP/PPP, the user usually is limited to electronic mail (email) and a few other hard-to-use services with no graphical user interface (GUI). In the old days (say, a year or so ago), it was a chore to properly set up a SLIP/PPP connection. Now, Windows 95 users can do so quickly and easily using software that is bundled (sold along with for no extra price) with Windows 95. This bundling drives Microsoft competitors out of business and is something we will all probably come to regret when Bill Gates becomes emperor, but it does make getting a full connection to the Internet easier.

Because a computer thinks and talks in a digital language and traditional POTS telephone lines carry analog information, the digital-to-analog-to-digital translation which must occur imposes technical problems and a fair amount of unpredictability. Modems on each end must not only convert and transmit (or receive) the data, but they must confirm with each other that the correct data was sent and received.

The fastest modems generally available are 56K modems,(3) which theoretically can download from an ISP at speeds approaching 56,000 bytes of information per second and upload at up to 31,200 bytes per second. Due to FCC regulations and real-life conditions, actual performance never reaches these theoretical limits. Also, not all POTS telephone lines can support 56K transmissions.

2. ISDN

Some firms and high-end individual users have switched to Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) access to their ISPs. ISDN lines transmit digital information, making it unnecessary to use a modem to translate digital information to analog and back. ISDN lines provide two paired lines ("B" lines), each capable of carrying 64,000 bytes of information per second. If both B lines are used together to connect to an ISP, 128,000 bytes of information per second may be transmitted. Because the signal remains digital, there is little or no degradation. Thus, 128K transmissions are more than theoretically possible.

ISDN uses copper lines, just like POTS lines, but a special installation is necessary. Also, ISDN lines are slightly more expensive than POTS lines. ISPs usually charge more for an ISDN connection than for a modem connection.

To use an ISDN line, the user must have an ISDN terminal. These terminals, which are similar to modems, used to be quite expensive but now cost little more than a modem.

Many small businesses, including the author's law firm, are installing ISDN routers on their local area networks (LANs). These routers, which contain the ISDN terminal, are available for $400 -- $900. They enable everyone on the network to share an ISDN line for Internet access. Like a server, the router determines how to allocate the bandwidth (the transmission capacity) among the users. Bandwidth is allocated only while a user is uploading or downloading information. Thus, even though four persons may be using the Internet at once, chances are they are not simultaneously downloading and/or uploading very often. When there is no simultaneous use, the entire 128K bandwidth is allocated to the person using it -- meaning that his or her performance more than doubles a 56K modem. Even if four persons were uploading or downloading at the same instant, each would be allocated approximately 31K of bandwidth -- comparable to a 34K modem.

The author's firm recently decided to install an ISDN line and router for shared Internet access. Here is a breakdown of the expenses:

One Time Charges

Amount

ISDN Service Connection Charge (Southwestern Bell) $78.60
ISDN Installation Charge (Southwestern Bell) (24-month contract -- with no contract, installation is $250.00, with one-year contract, $125.00) 0.00
ISDN LAN Router (Shiva AccessPort 2.0) 695.00
Dial-up ISDN Internet Access -- ISP Installation Charge (Illuminati Online) 100.00
Total One-Time Charges $873.60
   

Monthly Charges

Amount

ISDN Monthly Service (Southwestern Bell) $52.27
Dial-up ISDN Internet Access -- ISP (Illuminati Online) 85.00
Total Monthly Charges $137.27

This arrangement permitted the firm to avoid the need for modems on individual computers (a one-time savings of approximately $300), the installation of up to four dedicated POTS lines for modem use (Southwestern Bell charges slightly less than $50.00 per month per POTS line, plus installation charges) and maintenance of multiple Internet accounts at the ISP (approximately $20.00 per month per account). This arrangement also allows everyone in the office to access the Internet (not just the attorneys with modems) at average connection rates which are much higher than if each person connected via a modem.

3. T1

Very large firms (or firms fortunate enough to office in buildings where ISPs are located) sometimes connect to the Internet through a T1 connection. These firms are, in essence, hot-wired to the Internet. The cost of such a connection is prohibitive for all but the largest firms.

B. Basic Internet Features

Once a novice is connected to the Internet, there are two basic features that get the most use -- email and web browsing.

1. Email

Electronic mail (email) is a means to send messages from one computer to another over a network. There are both internal email systems, permitting the members of a local area network (LAN) to pass messages to each other, and external systems, permitting computer users to exchange messages over long distances, usually over the Internet. This paper focuses on email on the Internet, not for intraoffice messaging over a LAN.

Email permits quick, free (if one doesn't count the cost of having an account with an ISP) transmission of messages and computer files worldwide. It usually takes less than two minutes for a message to get from the sending computer to anywhere in the United States.

To send and receive email, the user must have an account with an ISP and an email client program (a client program is what the end user uses to send and receive information to a server). Email client programs come bundled with the two free web browser programs -- Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. In addition, there are other free programs, like industry leader Eudora Light. Once these client programs are configured with the right information to communicate with the server program at the ISP, they can send and receive email.

To use email, one must have a basic understanding of Internet naming conventions. Email addresses typically follow the format username@domain.com. The username is a unique name that the user selects (or is assigned by the ISP). The domain is either the ISP's name (such as AOL for America Online) or another domain. For $70, anyone can register a domain name and, so long as no one else picked it first, he or she can use that domain. To send email, one must know the proposed recipient's email address.

One of the key features of email is the ability to attach files to email messages. This comes in very handy. For example, assume that a pleading must be filed today in a city 200 miles away. Local counsel can handle the filing, but the pleading is on the computer at the home office. By emailing the file to local counsel, the pleading can be printed, signed and filed quickly.

Another key feature of email is the ability to easily respond to, and quote from, a prior message. Suppose John sends Sally the following message:

To: sally@aol.com

From: john@io.com

Subject: Dinner Saturday night?

How about having dinner with me Saturday night?

John

To respond to the message, Sally merely needs to hit the "Reply" button, and she is presented with a screen similar to this:

To: john@io.com

From: sally@aol.com

Subject: Re: Dinner Saturday night?

On 6/5/98, you wrote:

>How about having dinner with me Saturday night?
>
>John

It is a very simple matter for Sally to type her reply and send the response:

To: john@io.com

From: sally@aol.com

Subject: Re: Dinner Saturday night?

Sorry, John, I'm rearranging my sock drawer Saturday night.

Sally

On 6/5/98, you wrote:

>How about having dinner with me Saturday night?
>
>John

The ability to string responses together helps keep things straight if the email equivalent of telephone tag ensues.

2. Web Browsing

If web browsing was not becoming a huge economic force in the United States, the Justice Department would not be suing Microsoft over the way in which it bundles its web browser, Internet Explorer, with Windows 98. Businesses, institutions and individuals around the world have placed millions of pages of information available for public viewing on the Internet, and a web browser is the way computer users explore that information.

To browse the Web, one needs either Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer. Both programs currently are available free of charge. The web browser understands web addresses, which typically follow the format "www.domain.com." By typing in "www.microsoft.com," or by simply clicking the mouse on a link to www.microsoft.com, the web browser displays the main page at Microsoft Corporation, which in turn provides links to many other pages. The World Wide Web truly is a web -- the browser can follow links from one site to the next by simply clicking the mouse.

III. USING THE INTERNET TO COMMUNICATE WITH OTHERS

Increasingly clients and attorneys are using email as a primary method of communication. Workers in the high-tech industry rely heavily on email. email in 1998 is a lot like fax machines in 1990 or so -- things have just about gotten to the point where it is shocking to find an attorney who does not have (and know how to use) email. Just like with fax machines, there are a few holdouts, but the time is not far off that it will be inconceivable to practice law without email.

Here are some ways attorneys can use email to communicate with others more effectively:

Email is not the only way to communicate with others over the Internet. Some firms are establishing an "extranet" so that persons given permission can access information on the firm's computer over the Internet. See "Extranet" below.

IV. USING THE INTERNET TO MARKET YOUR PRACTICE

More and more lawyers are using the Internet to market themselves. A simple way to do this is to establish an email account and include the email address on letterhead, business cards, etc. This makes it easier for prospective clients to contact you.

A more complex way to market a lawyer or a law firm is through the World Wide Web. By placing information about the attorney or the firm on the Web and by developing strategies for getting potential clients or referral sources to view the information, attorneys may increase their caseload.

This part of the paper focuses on the steps involved in creating a site on the World Wide Web for attorneys and law firms.

A. Web Page Basics

Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide a certain amount of disk storage space on their server for each person with an account with the company. For example, Illuminati Online provides up to 10 megabytes of storage space to individual account holders.(5) Typically this disk storage space is private -- only the account holder may access what is on the site. This works fine for things like email, since the account holder presumably does not want the world to be able to read his or her email off the ISP's server. However, upon request the ISP will permit the public to access part of the account holder's disk storage. By placing properly formatted information in such a "public web" directory, the account holder can have a presence on the World Wide Web.

The format which made the World Wide Web what it is today is called hypertext markup language (HTML). HTML is a series of codes which permits a remote computer to display information in a format which is identical or similar to the format in which the information appeared on the writer's screen. These codes, which can be seen on any Web page by pressing the "Source" button on the "View" menu of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, are merely special characters and commands inserted in a text file. HTML documents can be written directly in the special code (it isn't too hard to figure out). However, most Web publishers use other programs to write HTML documents. For example, a WordPerfect document can be saved as an HTML document.(6) Also, Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator both come bundled with Web publishing programs.

The "hypertext" part of HTML is what gives the World Wide Web its web-like nature. HTML documents can be coded to provide links to other pages on the Web with relevant information. For example, this might be a good place to insert a link to a Web site that tells you how HTML works. The underlined phrase in the previous sentence is a hypertext link to an educational site on using HTML. If this document was on the Web and the reader decided that now would be a good time to learn more about HTML, he or she could click the mouse on that link and be whisked away to that site. (Hopefully the reader would have the good sense to click on the "Back" button on the Web browser to come back to this paper, however.)

Many rudimentary attorney Web sites (also called "home pages," although this quaint expression is becoming passť) contain mostly biographical and address information and very few hypertext links. One link usually included is a "mailto:" link, which permits the person viewing the site to send email to the owner of the Web page. More complex Web sites include many links and may also include substantive information on the site itself.

B. Advanced Web Page Techniques

The path from having a basic site to a complex site is a long one, with plenty of places to hop off along the way. The author is familiar with some of these techniques, but many are beyond his expertise. Many firms hire outside experts to create their Web site from the ground up, or, at least, to implement some of these advanced techniques. Here, then, is a grab-bag of advanced web page design to consider:

1. Graphics

Lawyers deal with words, so most home-grown Web sites for attorneys are short on graphics. Having no graphics makes the site boring, however, so at some point graphics should be added to help site navigation and eye appeal.

Graphics files typically come in either the .gif or .jpg formats and can be anything from buttons and bars to full-color photographs. These graphics files can be stored on the ISP's server along with the HTML files, and HTML language makes it fairly easy to incorporate graphics. Programs like FrontPage Express (bundled with Microsoft's Internet Explorer) make inserting graphics fairly easy.

Graphics files can become big and unwieldy, using up disk space at the ISP and, more importantly, increasing the time it takes to load the file over the Internet. A balance must be struck between eye-appealing graphics and download time. A lawyer's site does not have to be too sexy -- leave the pink letters on wavy purple backgrounds to the adult sites.

2. Making Text Files Easy to Download

Word processing files (such as WordPerfect files) can be stored on the ISP's server and made available for download to viewers of a web site. The Web user cannot view the WordPerfect file over the Internet, so often there must be two files of a document on the server -- a HTML version and a WordPerfect version. Adobe Acrobat is a program which permits posting of documents in the PDF format. This format can be read by users with the Adobe Acrobat Reader program, which is available over the Internet for free. Adobe gives away the reader hoping that Web site owners will buy the full-featured version (for approximately $300) so that documents can be placed on the server in PDF format.

Making documents available for download in WordPerfect format is a real service to attorneys. WordPerfect still is the #1 word processing program for attorneys, and the ability to get a WordPerfect document (for example, a power of attorney form) over the Internet gives attorneys using the site real value.

3. Forms

Including fill-in form on the web site makes it more likely that the site owner will hear from a site user and that the information is received in a predictable format. The form could be nothing more than a simple email query or as complex as a document retrieval request that requires a server-based program to process it.

4. Web Site Search Engine

Many sites include a search engine for finding files on the site by key words. If the site contains a number of substantive articles, a search engine can make the site much easier to use and, therefore, much more likely to be linked and used repeatedly. There are a number of free site search engines available, as well as a number of commercial products. For information on placing a search engine on a web site, link to www.searchenginewatch.com/resources/software.html.

5. Extranet

An extranet is a site on the Internet which permits persons outside the LAN password access to protected parts of the site. For example, the ACTEC web site (www.actec.org) has an extranet -- a members-only area which nonmembers cannot access. Law firms can use an extranet to keep clients informed about pending matters. For example, if a law firm represents a number of insurance companies on multiple insurance defense matters, it can give its clients password-protected access to certain information, such as case status, pleadings, deposition transcripts, etc. The insurance adjuster could go to the law firm's site, enter the appropriate password, and see the information without having to bother the attorney or the firm's support staff.

Most ISPs can permit password protection of a portion of the site, enabling an extranet. Password and username maintenance can be a problem if the client base changes frequently, however.

C. Web Site -- Ethical Considerations

Some attorney sites on the World Wide Web clearly are advertisements. The primary purpose of the site is to attract business for the attorney. Other sites are more educational in nature. The site may indirectly generate business for the attorney hosting it, but solicitation of clients is not the primary purpose of the site.

Ethics groups around the country have struggled with lawyer advertising issues in general and attorneys' web site issues in particular. The Advertising Review Committee of the State Bar of Texas (www.obeliskcom.com/arc) has issued interpretive comments on the use of web pages by attorneys. These comments are attached as Appendix C.

Based on these interpretative comments, Texas attorneys with web sites "must file a hard copy, including the URL address of: (1) the first screen which is sent to the computer of an accessing person when the home page location (URL) is accessed; and (2) any material changes in format that vary from the first screen of the original home page." This information, together with an application form (found in Appendix C) and a $50.00 fee, must be filed with the Advertising Review Committee. The site may be pre-approved or filed contemporaneously with its use.

D. Marketing Strategies

How does an attorney attract attention to his or her Web site -- and not just any attention, but the attention of potential clients or referral sources? Two excellent articles by Joseph Jacobsen (a Texas attorney who also serves on the State Bar of Texas's Advertising Review Committee) are available on the Web -- "Marketing Your Law Practice on the Internet" at www.obeliskcom.com/marketlawyers/01.html and "The Future of the Internet -- Ethics' Increased Importance to Attorneys" at http://www.obeliskcom.com/marketlawyers/02.html . Some of the following discussion is drawn from concepts discussed by Mr. Jacobsen, as well as from the author's own experience.

1. Who Is the Target Audience?

In designing a Web site, the first question must be: Who is the target audience? Are prospective clients expected to access the site and contact the attorney? Are trust officers, investment advisors, insurance professionals, etc., expected to be attracted to the site and refer business to the attorney? Is the site targeted at other attorneys who may wish to refer a matter or associate co-counsel?

The target audience of the site drives the purpose and design of the site. For example, Paul Premack, who is an elder law attorney in San Antonio, uses his site (www.premack.com) to provide a wealth of information for consumers regarding elder law issues. Mr. Premack does such a good job of providing useful information to consumers that he also provides information of use to attorneys as well. Nonetheless, it is clear from reviewing his site that Mr. Premack is seeking to provide information to consumers directly. This clearly defined purpose gives direction and energy to the site. Knowing the target audience helps Mr. Premack know what writing style to use, how to publicize his site (and his practice) and how to respond to inquiries from the site.

The author's site (www.texasprobate.net), on the other hand, is geared to other lawyers, not to consumers. The site grew out of the author's desire to make timely information available about pending legislation during the 1995 legislative session. While probate legislation may be of passing interest to members of the general public, it is not going to attract a whole lot of attention from Jane Q. Public. Probate lawyers and nonspecialists around the state, on the other hand, find the topic more interesting and useful, especially when September 1 rolls around and it is time to start using the new statutory durable power of attorney form and West Publishing Company has not released its latest paperback version of the Probate Code.

While the site wasn't begun with marketing in mind, it clearly has boosted the author's business. While the author gets inquiries from members of the general public directly from the Web site, but most users are lawyers. This means that the marketing advantages of having the site are more tenuous and hard to measure, but over time it has become clear that the Web site boosts referrals.

2. Why Should a Member of the Target Audience Visit the Site?

After the target audience of the Web site is identified, how can members of that audience be motivated to visit the site? Traditionally, attorneys announced their desire for business with simple listings in the Yellow Pages and terse biographies in legal directories such as Martindale-Hubble.

One option is to make the Web site similar to the firm's Martindale-Hubble advertisement. Many firms do this, but there is one big difference between traditional publications such as the Yellow Pages and Martindale-Hubble and the World Wide Web. The Yellow Pages and Martindale-Hubble index listings in one, clearly defined way which the user must follow if the publication is to be helpful. For example, someone using Martindale-Hubble to find a probate lawyer in Dallas must, as a practical matter, go to the "Texas" volume, look under "Dallas" and look at the practice areas and biographies of the firms listed there to find an appropriate lawyer.

There is no set indexing method on the Web. A potential client may search for a probate lawyer in Dallas in one of several ways. For example, the prospect may use a commercial directory, such as the one sponsored by West Group. However, the prospect is just as likely (perhaps more likely) to look for an attorney using one of the free search services, such as Yahoo or Alta Vista. The prospect may look on the Web for information on probating a will and try to link to an attorney from there. If the firm's Web page just has biographical information, the prospect may never find it.

Another option is to include a number of links to other sites on the firm's site. As a general rule, sites with a number of links usually have a number of sites linked back to them. The more hypertext connections a site has to the rest of the Web, the more likely it is that someone who might benefit from the site is likely to find it. There are a number of appropriate and useful links for a law firm's Web site -- judicial sites, law school sites, statutory and legislative sites, other firm's sites, etc.

A third option is to provide substantive information of interest to the target audience on the site itself. If a site does more than merely promote the site's owner, it is much more likely to be linked and it is much more likely to be found by a web crawler engine (see "Free Web Indexes and Search Engines" below). If the target audience is consumers of estate planning services, the site could have articles describing the planning process, descriptions of planning techniques in lay terms, etc. These articles necessarily would include many of the key words which a prospective client may search for using a web crawler service such as Alta Vista, making it much more likely that the prospective client will find the page. Also, providing well-written, correct information on the Web is a way for an attorney to show the potential client that the attorney knows what he or she is talking about.

3. If You Build It, Will They Come?

Links are the lifeblood of Web sites. The greatest site in the world is virtually worthless unless the target audience can and does access the site. How can viewers be attracted to the site?

a. Commercial Services

There are companies which, for a fee, will include a link to one's site (or the site itself) on lists of other attorneys, businesses and related sites. These companies are just like publishers of Yellow Pages -- they sell adds to businesses who hope their target audience uses that service. Some of the big names in legal publishing offer commercial services -- Martindale Hubbell and West Publishing, for example. Attorneys must engage in the same cost/benefit analysis with these services as they do with their Yellow Pages ads -- is the projected traffic through the site worth the fee? The author has not used commercial services to promote his site.

b. Free Web Indexes and Search Engines

The largest search engines on the Web are free. These engines make money selling advertising on their sites. They benefit from the largest number of users possible using their service, so they want computer users to find what they are looking for on their service.

There are two basic types of search engines. The first type, of which Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) is the best-known, maintains an index of Web sites by topic. When a computer user uses Yahoo to search for a "Texas probate lawyer," the Yahoo program searches its index of sites for probable matches.

The other type of search engine undertakes a much more ambitious task. This type, of which Alta Vista (www.altavista.digital.com) is an example, uses a program called a web crawler to continuously search the World Wide Web for pages. The web crawler notes the key words on a particular page and indexes those key words in the search engine's index. When a user searches Alta Vista for a "Texas probate lawyer," the Alta Vista engine looks in its index for web pages which contain some combination of these key words.

In general, the best way for an attorney to get his or her page noticed (and indexed on) services like Yahoo is to submit the page and a short description directly to the service. There are companies which will do this for the attorney for a fee, but it can be done for free if the attorney is willing to take the time to do so. Obviously, if Yahoo is only going to search the site's name and brief description, it pays to have the description contain the most likely key words that a prospective client would enter. For example, which of these descriptions would be more likely to be picked up by Yahoo in a search by someone looking for a lawyer to handle a probate matter in Dallas?

Death & Greed, P. C. -- You plug 'em, we pluck 'em.

Death & Greed, P. C. -- Joe Death and Bill Greed, board certified estate planning and probate lawyers, Dallas, Texas.

If a prospective client found both descriptions, he/she may very well be attracted to the sense of humor evidenced in the first example. However, given how search engines work, it is unlikely that the first description ever would be seen. On the other hand, there are a number of key words in the second example that might attract the search engine -- estate planning, probate, lawyers, Dallas, Texas.

This search engine phenomenon is even more exaggerated with respect to the web-crawler-type search engine. A page with lots of topic-specific key words is more likely to pop up as one of the top 20 choices than one with cryptic information.

One way to enhance the chances of being picked up by a web crawler program and to control how the site is described by the search engine is through the use of meta tags. Meta tags are special HTML codes which are not seen by the user (unless the "View...Source" button is pushed) but which tell the web crawler useful information about the site. One meta tag is for a description of the site. If the web crawler picks up the site (because of key words), and if the site has a description meta tag, the crawler is supposed to display the user-written description rather than an excerpt from the first part of the page selected by the crawler.

Another meta tag is for key words. If used properly, this enables a user to be connected to a page that otherwise might be missed by the crawler. For example, a lay person may have heard about QTIP trusts and be looking for a lawyer who knows about them. A search for "QTIP lawyer Dallas" may not turn up a site with extensive references to marital deduction trusts, qualified terminable interest property trusts, etc. If "QTIP" was included in the key word meta tag, the lay person may get connected with the "marital deduction lawyer" she seeks.

Unfortunately, meta tags -- especially the key word tag -- can be abused. A number of adult sites try to attract viewers by using key words which have nothing to do with the site being promoted. The operators of web crawler programs may delete a site from its index entirely if it appears that the key word meta tag is being abused.

c. Non-Internet-Related Marketing

A lawyer should put his or her web site address and email address on letterhead, business cards, seminar handouts, charity-related ads (such as the program for the school play), etc. Many prospective clients prefer to initiate contact with an attorney over the Internet. If they see an attorney's web address and email address on a seminar handout, they may browse the site and send an email inquiry.

V. USING THE INTERNET FOR LEGAL RESEARCH

There is a huge amount of information available on the Internet, but unfortunately access to that information is spotty -- at least when using free services.

A. Free Research

The key to finding information on the Internet is the World Wide Web, and the key to finding information on the World Wide Web are hypertext links. Attached as an appendix to this paper is a table showing giving links to a number of sites on the Web. An updated version of this table is available on the author's Web site (www.texasprobate.net, push the "Links" button). The table attempts to give a description of the information to be found on each site and the author's subjective rating of the site. Most of the sites listed also have extensive links to other sites. This makes this table (or, more appropriately, the "Links" page on www.texasprobate.net) an entryway to the Web.

In addition to resources available on the Web, email mailing lists can be a valuable source of substantive information for lawyers. The two best lists for estate planning and probate lawyers in Texas are the ABA-PTL list and the author's Texas Probate list. Information on subscribing to both lists is included in the appendix. The ABA-PTL list covers national issues, including tax issues, while the Texas Probate list focuses on Texas issues, including legislative developments.

B. Fee-Based Research

Due to the still-spotty resources available for free over the Internet, it probably remains necessary to have an account with Westlaw or LEXIS to fill in the gaps. Westlaw and LEXIS are available over the Internet.

There are two reasons current dial-up customers may wish to access Westlaw over the Internet rather than by a dial-up connection. First, the Internet connection probably is faster, especially if a 56K modem is used. Second, it is unnecessary to hang up the line to the ISP (disconnecting from the Internet) in order to access Westlaw, and vice versa.

There are two ways to access Westlaw over the Internet. To use the Westmate 6.3 interface (the current dial-up interface) over the Internet, click on "Setup" in the "File" menu, then click on "Communications," then click on "Sign-On Options," and then add WESTLAW via Windows Sockets" to the available sign-on options. (The dial-up option may be retained or deleted as preferred.) Then, when signing on Westlaw, make sure "WESTLAW via Windows Sockets" is selected.

To use Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator to access Westlaw, click on www.westlaw.com.

To access LEXIS on the Internet, use Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator and click on www.lexis.com.

VI. CONCLUSION

The Internet is becoming increasingly important to attorneys. With a little effort, it can be a resource, not a burden.

APPENDIX A -- LEGAL RESEARCH LINKS

APPENDIX B -- GLOSSARY OF TECHNICAL TERMS

Bandwidth refers to the transmission capacity of a network or network component. The faster a device can process information, the greater its bandwidth. For example, a 56K modem -- one that can theoretically transmit information from an ISP to a user at the rate of 56,000 bytes of information per second -- has greater bandwidth than an older-generation 28.8K modem.

Bundled software is software that is sold along with another program or product so that the user is not required to pay separately for the bundled software. For more information, see United States v. Microsoft Corporation.

A client program is one that a computer user uses to perform a function on a remote computer. For example, a lawyer may use an email client program to access his or her email over a network. The remote computer on which the function is performed is called a server.

A domain is computer on the Internet with a unique name. The computer may be physically located on the Internet, as is the case with the computers operated by an ISP, or "virtually" located on the Net, as is the case with most domains. For example, the author's ISP -- Illuminati Online -- has the domain io.com. This domain is physically located on the Internet -- Illuminati's computers are constantly hot-wired to the Net. The author's domain -- texasprobate.net -- does not denote a separate computer on the Internet. Rather, through Internet addressing, the domain texasprobate.net virtually exists on the Internet when in reality it exists on Illuminati Online's computer. This is called a "virtual domain," and Illuminati Online is providing "web hosting" services.

Electronic mail -- email -- is a method of passing messages and other information, including computer files, from one computer to another over a network.

An extranet is a means of permitting persons not on a local area network (LAN) to access password protected information on a Web site.

A graphical user interface (GUI) is a part of a computer program which permits the user to manipulate the program by reference to graphical elements (such as icons, or pictures) instead of by means of textual computer code. Microsoft's Windows operating system has a GUI, and most companies now write software to take advantage of it.

Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) is a relatively new digital telephone service. Use of an ISDN telephone line (rather than a POTS line) makes it unnecessary to have a modem to convert digital information to analog format and vice versa and, not coincidentally, enables faster data transmission.

An Internet Service Provider -- ISP -- is a company or institution which provides Internet access to computer users. For organizations like universities, the ISP may be the university itself. For most lawyers, however, the ISP will be a commercial enterprise selling Internet access, such as America Online.

A local area network -- a LAN -- is a group of computers at one location that are connected to each other by wiring (except that some state-of-the-art LANs use microwave connections now). Typically the users of computers on a LAN share data and/or programs. Most law firms have a LAN connecting all of its computers together to permit file sharing -- both the attorney and his or her secretary can access the same document file without having to exchange floppy disks, for example.

A modem is a device which converts the digital information on a computer into a format which can be transmitted over analog telephone lines, and vice versa.

POTS, short for "plain old telephone service," describes traditional analog telephone lines.

A router is a device which permits users to share one data transmission line. The router detects how many users are transmitting or receiving information at a particular moment and divides the available bandwidth among the users.

A server is a computer than permits remote users to access its programs and/or data.

A SLIP/PPP connection is an Internet connection which allows the use of a graphical user interface to browse the World Wide Web.

A web crawler program is a program which visits pages on the World Wide Web and indexes the key words found there. A search engine then searches the index, permitting users to find Web pages with those key words. Alta Vista is an example of a web crawler-based search engine.

APPENDIX C -- ADVERTISING REVIEW COMMITTEE MATERIALS

Following is an excerpt from the Interpretative Comments to Disciplinary Rules 7.01 7.07 adopted by the Advertising Review Committee of the State Bar of Texas. This information may be found at the State Bar of Texas's Advertising Review Committee's web site (http://www.obeliskcom.com/arc). A copy of the advertising review committee's application form also is available at that site.

17. The Internet and Similar Services Including Home Pages

A. The Home Page First Screen

Certain publications on the Internet or similar services are public media advertisements and are subject to the provisions of Part 7 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Unless the home page would otherwise be exempt from the filing requirements under Rule 7.07(d), a lawyer or firm publishing a home page on the Internet must file a hard copy, including the URL address of: (1) the first screen which is sent to the computer of an accessing person when the home page location (URL) is accessed; and (2) any material changes in format that vary from the first screen of the original home page. Pre-approval for the first screen of the home page is available.

B. Information Linked to the First Screen of the Home Page

Generally, additional information that the lawyer or law firm publishes on the Internet or other similar services beyond the first screen of the home page should not be submitted for pre-approval or filed with the Advertising Review Committee. However, additional information beyond the first screen that is primarily concerned with solicitation of prospective clients by a lawyer or law firm is considered public media advertisement that must comply with Part 7 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, including the filing requirements of 7.07. The following examples are generally not considered to be primarily concerned with solicitation of prospective clients: newsletters; news articles; legal articles; editorial opinions; illustrations; questionnaires; fact or opinion survey forms; announcement of office openings and relocations; request for proposals or information from the public; legal product specifications; E-mail and E-mail response forms; attorney biographical information; announcement or personnel changes; attorney and support staff recruiting; job openings; legal development and events, including verdicts, judgments, court rulings, administrative rulings, and/or legislation; announcement of seminars and events, including on-line registration forms therefor; links to other Internet sites (legal or otherwise); and entertainment/amusement devices.

C. Compliance with Part 7 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct Including Rule 7.04(a-c) and (h-o).

Information that may not be considered primarily concerned with solicitation of prospective clients must still comply with the applicable provisions of Part 7 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rule 7.04(a-c) and (h-o).Attorney biographical information must contain appropriate statements and/or disclaimers as required by 7.04(a-c).References to a submitting lawyer's or law firm's accomplishments or record, including verdicts, judgments, court rulings, and administrative rulings, must be accompanied by an appropriate disclaimer as well as the information set forth in Interpretive Comment 3 regarding unjustified expectations. The home page first screen must also disclose the geographic location by city or town of the lawyer''s or firm's principal office.

[material omitted]

20. Distinctions Between "Pre-approval" and "Filing"

A request for "PRE-APPROVAL" denotes a public media advertisement or written solicitation that has been submitted to the Advertising Review Committee pursuant to Rule 7.07(c) at least thirty (30) days prior to the date the lawyer or law firm plans to disseminate the advertisement or solicitation to the public. Pre-approval is an option for the advertising lawyer, but it is not required. The purpose of a request for pre-approval is to discover any violations of the advertising rules so that they may be corrected prior to dissemination. For example, in the case of advertisements in telephone and similar directories, the pre-approval request must be submitted at least thirty (30) days prior to the last date on which a change could be made to the advertisement before printing. Advertisements and solicitations submitted for pre-approval will be reviewed and returned to the advertising lawyer within twenty-five(25) days of the date of receipt with either (1) a pre-approval or (2) a request for corrections and/or additional information. A pre-approval of an advertisement or written solicitation is an "advisory opinion" of compliance under rule 7.07(c).

A "FILING" denotes any public media advertisement or written solicitation that has been submitted to the Advertising Review Committee for review pursuant to Rule7.07(b) but has not been submitted to the Committee at least thirty (30) days prior to the initial dissemination of the advertisement or solicitation. Rule 7.07(d) exempts certain advertisements and solicitations from the filing requirements; however, filing of an advertisement or solicitation which is not exempted by Rule 7.07(d) is mandatory. If a filed advertisement or written solicitation contains no violations, the advertiser will be sent an approval, normally within forty-five (45) days of the date of receipt. However, if a filed advertisement or written solicitation contains violation(s)of the advertising rules, the Committee may refer the violation(s) to the office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel without notification to the submitting lawyer.

[material omitted]

22. Advertisement of Living Trusts

Without objective substantiation, a lawyer may not advertise that a particular approach to a legal problem utilized by that lawyer is superior in comparison to other accepted and appropriate approaches to the same problem. Such advertisements are potentially misleading and may create unjustified expectations in violation of Rules 7.02(a)(1) and(2). Comparisons in advertisements by lawyers for estate planning services frequently emphasize the exclusive use of revocable living trusts to transfer assets at death. In this context, a lawyer may not explicitly or implicitly advertise, for example, that:

1. Living trusts will always save the client money.

2. The use of a living trust in and of itself will reduce or eliminate estate taxes otherwise payable as result of the client's death.

3. Estate tax savings can be achieved only by use of a living trust.

4. The use of a living trust will achieve estate tax savings that cannot be achieved using a will.

5. The probate process is always lengthy and complicated.

6. The probate process should always be avoided.

7. The use of a living trust will reduce the total expenses incurred compared to expenses incurred using other estate planning devices intended to address the same basic function.

8. The use of a living trust avoids lengthy delays experienced in the use of other estate planning devices intended to address the same basic function.

9. Lawyers use will-writing as a loss leader.

These and other similar statements are potentially misleading and may create unjustified expectations in violation of Rules 7.02(a)(1) and (2). Additionally, in such advertisements, references to the American probate system at large should be avoided because the Texas probate system is much different and typically much simpler. A lawyer is not prohibited from conducting seminars on estate planning in general and advertising that at such seminars the advantages of revocable trusts will be discussed.

 

ENDNOTES

1. This does not keep people from writing (or, presumably, buying) book after book on the Internet.

2. This is one of those statements which may quickly become obsolete. The author anticipates that fulltime Internet connections for most large and small law firms may be just a year or two away.

3. Two incompatible formats (x2 and Kflex) developed for 56K modems. In February, 1998, an industry-wide standard called v.90 was adopted. Most 56K modems on sale now support the v.90 standard and one of the two incompatible formats. Most x2 and Kflex modems manufactured before the v.90 standard was adopted can be updated to the new standard. Contact the modem's manufacturer for details. Like the modems themselves, most ISPs support only one of the two incompatible former standards and many ISPs have not yet adopted the v.90 standard.

4. A health note: You know you are in too deep when you not only work on Christmas Eve, but you also check your email mailing list message on Christmas Eve.

5. The storage space must be located on the ISP's server so that it is accessible to Internet users even when the owner of the page (the ISP's customer) is not logged on.

6. Saving a WordPerfect file as an HTML document causes the loss of some of the formatting codes, but this method works fine with simple formatting codes, such as bold-faced type, italics, etc.

 

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Copyright 1998 by Glenn M. Karisch     Last Revised June 15, 1998