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Counsel.com.

Bit by bit, lawyers--and their clients--are getting online in Latin America.

LATIN AMERICAN LAW FIRMS ARE hanging out a new shingle--one with a cyber twist.

Whether it's offering cut-rate legal services online, using the Web as a marketing tool, or just making cross-regional legal business easier, the Internet is slowly but surely changing how law firms in the region get things done. Not convinced?

Exhibit A: Venezuelan lawyer and Netpreneur Jhamil Chirinos is one of a new breed of young Latin American lawyers taking the law online, usually through start-ups that are just beginning to grab consumer attention. Chirinos's site, Nuevababilonia.com, offers everything from car sales documents to prenuptial agreements online.

Chirinos says he has registered 1,000 users since launching in May 2000. His two staff lawyers process a variety of documents, from rental agreements to powers of attorney, for online clients. "The law shouldn't be a luxury item, but it's seen as very elitist," he says. "People should be able to find out their rights and obligations, and this is a way to do that."

Attorneys in Venezuela cannot advertise but the Web could prove an effective way to reach new clients. Chirinos is getting set to expand the site's reach by signing up lawyers who will offer free online consultations with the hope of reeling in money-making business. The Caracas Metropolitan Mayor's Office, for example, tests its draft ordinances on the site to gather public opinion before submitting the final version to the city council. The next step for Chirinos? A legal affairs portal. Exhibit B: Among mid-sized operations are sites offering specific, low-end legal services at a fraction of the cost and time it would take to do through a regular lawyer. Demarcas.com, an Argentine-Venezuelan venture, provides trademark searches and registration online in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Uruguay. Offices in Mexico, Chile and Colombia are on the radar screen. "The idea is do-it-yourself, to de-monopolize information." says founding partner Ricardo Fischer, a Caracas trademark attorney.

"The idea is do-it-yourself, to de-monopolize information."

Demarcas.com builds databases of registered trademarks in each country--no mean feat considering data entry must be done by hand in countries like Venezuela and Mexico, where information is still only in written form. Users can conduct free trademark searches. Some 500 people have taken advantage of the service since the site debuted in September "We look at this as a commodity; not as a legal service," says Fischer "Now, if you want to go after someone who is illegally using your trademark, then you have to contact a lawyer." Exhibit C: Miami firm Greenberg Traurig which does a hefty share of business in Latin America, has developed a Web site, GT Americas, as a storehouse of information about the region--and as a subtle marketing tool.

Modeled on the U.S. State Department's country desk system, the site gives each country its own "desk," updated daily with country-specific business, economic and political news. The site, launched last September, receives about 600 hits a day, says Raquel Rodriguez, co-coordinator of the firm's International Practice Group and head of the Web project.

Besides being a resource for the surfing public, the site has turned into a tool for the firm's own lawyers, who use it to stay on top of events in Latin America and to track their clients' business dealings.

"We see more of what our clients are doing, and we can offer our services in a particular deal," says Rodriguez. "It's giving us information that we did not have before and giving clients a window on the type of work we can do." Cross examination. Latin American lawyers can do much more on the Web than they currently are, says Mark Pruner, a Connecticut lawyer and a consultant on professional service Web sites. "From what I've seen, Latin American firms tend to use their Web site as a 'brochure site,'" says Pruner "They see it as an online billboard, but it can be a very effective marketing tool or a tool to branch into other services."

Still, with Latin America's often faulty telephone wiring and the confidentiality of the documents that many lawyers handle, security on the Internet may limit its use, says Luiz Gozzoli, a Brazilian attorney and shareholder of Akerman Senterfitt's International Practice Group in Miami. "I'd rather be more traditional and fedex documents," he says. "There have been some miscommunications with e-mails, the dates and times can be inaccurate:"

Gozzoli recommends caution, especially with unknown parties. "Never close a deal over the Internet," he advises. "Always confirm payments or transfer of assets, even by fax."

The defense rests: Risk aside, the Internet is particularly handy when dealing with cross-border clients, notes Miami lawyer John Tober Clients can log on to a secure site with a password to monitor progress of a case, check recent memoranda and filings or leave instructions. "It allows you to develop a client relationship, even when that person is in another country," Tober says.

In a business built on relationships and information, that means being in touch can be as close as any desktop PC. That may not be the same as holding a client's hand, but it's certainly an advantage competitive lawyers will exploit.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:HOAG, CHRISTINA
Publication:Latin Trade
Date:Aug 1, 2001
Words:870
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