Despite the legal profession's historical resistance to technological advances, the burgeoning world of cyberspace is bringing change to the practice of law. As laypeople flock to the Internet to seek help with their legal problems, lawyers are going online to provide such assistance. Yet, these exchanges are occurring without close consideration of whether they create attorney-client relationships -- the source of weighty ethical and legal obligations. In many cases, lawyers seek to avoid the consequences of such relationships merely by disclaiming their existence.
In this Article, Professor Lanctot examines the issue of lawyer-layperson communications in cyberspace from doctrinal and historical perspectives. The Article's analysis of the case law demonstrates that online exchanges resulting in the giving of specific legal advice likely will be viewed as creating attorney-client relationships. Moreover, disclaimers are unlikely to provide the protection that many lawyers seek. The Article then reviews the history of bar regulation of advice-giving in a variety of contexts, from the Good Will Court radio broadcasts of the 1930s to today's seminars and 900-number services. The Article shows that the bar consistently has both viewed the furnishing of particularized legal advice as creating an attorney-client relationship and frowned on such advice-giving in nontraditional contexts. The bar's cool response to forms of legal assistance spurred [*pg 148] by new technology sounds a cautionary note for lawyers on the Internet.
Yet, if attorney-client relationships in cyberspace present some peril, through the specter of legal liability or of bar disciplinary action, they also present enormous promise for addressing the unmet legal needs of many Americans with lower incomes. Professor Lanctot concludes the Article by discussing the challenge of adapting the traditional, full-service model of attorney-client relationships to the question-and-answer format of cyberspace. One means of doing so, known as discrete task representation, may allow lawyers to avoid the legal and ethical pitfalls of online practice yet provide valuable legal assistance to those who cannot afford traditional representation.