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The verdict is in: Simple sites rule - Laughs have more appeal than lawyer searches

By Leslie Miller
Wed., Aug. 12, 1998
FINAL EDITION
Section: LIFE
Page 6D

When it comes to people we love to hate, lawyers seem to be right up there with politicians and the IRS.

Maybe that's why surfers in this week's USA TODAY/IntelliQuest Web survey of consumer law sites preferred two sites with simple explanations of legal terms and issues over one that emphasizes finding a lawyer.

Sites for consumer self-help publisher Nolo Press and FreeAdvice.com were rated significantly higher in every category than Lawyers.com, with a ''Locate a Lawyer'' search engine on its front page.

Respondents rated Nolo significantly higher than either of the others in entertainment value, visual appeal and ease of use. Fifty-two percent called Nolo ''very entertaining,'' vs. 38% for FreeAdvice and 20% for Lawyers.com.

The three sites:

* Nolo Press -- Nolo was started in 1971 by two Legal Aid lawyers who believed that nonlawyers should be able to handle routine legal problems without an attorney. They began writing self-help law books and have since branched out to computer software, legal forms, audiotapes, videotapes and the Web. The site features a dictionary of ''legalese'' and even lawyer jokes (A judge was asked to contribute 10 bucks to a lawyer's funeral. ''Here's a hundred,'' he said. ''Bury 10 of 'em.''). Not everyone appreciates Nolo's efforts, however; on Aug. 20, an official panel acting on behalf of the Texas Supreme Court will hold a hearing on whether the sale of Nolo's books and software in Texas constitutes ''unauthorized practice of law.''

* FreeAdvice.com -- One of several sites by Advice & Counsel, founded in 1991 by a publisher and a law firm that no longer accepts new clients. It has informational articles on more than 100 legal topics and bulletin boards where visitors can post questions. Its other sites, linked to this one, offer directories of lawyers and of expert witnesses.

* Lawyers.com -- This new site from the publishers of the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory features profiles of 420,000 lawyers and law firms worldwide. Although it has background on the law, a glossary and a form to submit questions to lawyers, the emphasis is clearly on finding a lawyer.

Some panelists, including Denise Garofalo of Marlboro, N.Y., liked Lawyers.com. ''I was looking for a lawyer, so it was perfect timing for me,'' says Garofalo, 39. As a librarian, she adds, ''directories like this are always of interest to me.''

But some surfers have little interest in legal Web sites.

''I was not overly impressed with any of them,'' says Brian Hencey, 31, a computer systems analyst in Austin, Texas. He uses legal software (Quicken Family Lawyer) for wills and rental property contracts; if he wants to find a lawyer, ''I think I can do that over the phone.''

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