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Pitching online bids for legal work

Thursday, August 24, 2000

By Stephanie Franken, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The founder of an Internet company that corporations can use to shop online for legal services stopped in Pittsburgh to pitch his site yesterday.

John B. Henry II launched this spring, and 400 law firms nationwide have registered with the Web site so far.

The site auctions the firms' services, giving potential clients a way to solicit bids for their business. Through the process, Henry said, eLawForum creates a competitive market that drives down costs for clients. Henry, a former senior counsel for Mobil Corp., has raised over $2 million from investors for his venture.

So far, 32 corporations nationwide have signed with the service, which focuses on lining up clients and firms for routine legal work such as product-liability cases and insurance claims.

One local company, FreeMarkets, may give eLawForum some competition in the business of online legal service auctions. Ralph F. Manning, an attorney at Tucker Arensberg in Pittsburgh, said, "FreeMarkets is conducting a similar auction arrangement with a multinational corporation with offices in Pittsburgh."

FreeMarkets spokeswoman Karen Kovatch said the company has conducted an auction for a two-year contract for labor law services. She said 13 firms bid on the contract, which saved the company 30 percent.

Manning said that the online auctioning of legal services may work well in some cases, but he added that potential clients usually value the quality of service as much as its price, if not more.

eLawForum allows interested clients to weigh a variety of criteria, in addition to price, when selecting a law firm. But some aspects of a successful attorney-client relationship, such as trust and mutual respect, can be difficult to gauge online.

Attorney John Sieminski registered his Pittsburgh firm, Wayman Irvin and McAuley, on shortly after the site was launched. Noting that registration is free and relatively simple, he said, "My sense was that there was nothing to lose."

But he hasn't gained, either. "I have not received any requests for me to bid my services. My sense is that they just don't have many clients yet."

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