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Self-help Web sites show consumers how to settle claims without lawyers

If you've ever been injured in a car accident, you might have contacted one of the countless personal injury lawyers who boast they are not afraid to take on the insurance industry. While you might have won a good settlement, you might have lost up to 40 percent of it to the crusading attorney.

Now imagine winning the same settlement without having to cough up a contingency fee to a lawyer. That's the premise offered by two new companies, MyClaim.com and SelfSettle.com. Both companies help consumers conduct research and prepare documents related to their injury. In the end, their customers will have a professional-quality settlement-demand package to submit to the insurance company.

"We are empowering claimants," says Daniel Yelich, MyClaim.com's executive vice president. He points out that people have a constitutional right to represent themselves.

But some lawyers believe a company like MyClaim.com endangers consumers. "A lot of these things require the application of legal experience," explains Richard F. Mallen, an attorney who has filed a lawsuit against MyClaim.com, alleging it engages in unauthorized practice of law. "It's similar to if your friend picked up a medical text book and tried to remove your gall bladder. Yeah, he could do it, but it might not come out alright."

Officials at both companies emphasize they are not dispensing legal advice or otherwise practicing law. "We only provide information on what the statutes are. We won't make any recommendations or give advice," says Roland Reinholz, CEO for MyClaim.com, which is based in St. Louis, Mo.

Mallen's personal injury firm, Richard F. Mallen & Associates of Chicago, on March 21, 2000 filed a lawsuit on behalf of all Illinois personal-injury attorneys accusing MyClaim.com of engaging in unauthorized practice of law and unfair competition. It seeks an injuction to prevent MyClaim.com from conducting business in Illinois.

SelfSettle.com, based in Henderson, Nev. and operating under the name Self Settle Inc., has not been formally accused of unauthorized practice of law. "We don't give legal advice," says Chad Russell, president of Self Settle. "We've had some attorneys contact us. Once we clarify what it is we do, everybody's comfortable with our situation."

Reinholz also expresses confidence that MyClaim.com has not crossed any lines in helping people prepare claims. "When we went into this business, we knew, obviously, we would be challenged. We spent a great deal of time and money ensuring that we are not practicing law," he says. "We feel very confident that the lawsuit in Illinois will either be dismissed on its merits or we will defend it successfully."

Mallen, meanwhile, says MyClaim.com could mislead consumers, who are at risk of losing their entire case. For example, he says MyClaim.com is not clear about Illinois' statute of limitations. The time restrictions on filing claims vary and depend on the circumstances in which the person was injured.

"There were very significant and false statements made in the materials made available to public," Mallen says. "They problem here is that you can damage people severely. All of the sudden, they've lost their claim because they're relying on unauthorized, inaccurate information."

How to settle a claim on your own

MyClaim.com gives its customers access to an online resource library to conduct research. The database includes facts and legal information relevant to their cases. It also includes legal information about the insurance industry and the claims-adjusting and settlement process. Additionally, customers can get their hands on valuable jury verdict data that allows them to compare the facts of their case to those of other similar cases that have gone to trial.

MyClaim gathers police reports and information related to a customer's injuries and posts it online in the customer's secure file.

After signing on, customers complete an automated questionnaire designed to produce a settlement demand letter that builds upon the user's responses. The final package delivered to the insurance company consists of detailed information about the accident, any possible loss of wages, an expense summary and details about expenses.

To avoid the unauthorized practice of law, the company will not answer specific questions posed by customers about the merits or value of their specific injury claims. MyClaim.com also will not evaluate a claim or present it to an insurance company.

MyClaim.com offers customers two ways to pay for the service. They can pay $250 when signing up. If the case fails to settle, they will not get your money back. Alternately, customers can sign up and pay $500 only when the case settles. If it doesn't settle, they won't have to pay a dime.

Even if they've paid and the case fails to settle, all is not lost. Daniel Yelich, MyClaim.com's executive vice president, says customers can take their research to lawyers and seek a reduction in fee.

MyClaim.com went online in October 1999, but Yelich says it only became active in early May. Yelich would not say how many people have signed up so far, but no cases have been settled yet. "I don't think I would impress you with the volume," he says.

The company has been battling in court a former consultant and attorney, Barbara Gilbert of Irvine, Calif., alleging she breached agreements with MyClaim.com. The company retained Gilbert to assist in developing its settlement system. But according to MyClaim.com, Gilbert claimed she owned the company's intellectual property and its website. A St. Louis Circuit Court judge issued a court order preventing Gilbert from "making any personal use of any confidential information concerning the business of MyClaim.com," according to MyClaim.com.

Gilbert says the MyClaim.com Web site is based on a legal self-help book she wrote designed to educate non-lawyers on how to settle their own personal injury case. Gilbert left the company in February. On May 1, she filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court in California, alleging, among other things, fraud, conspiracy, and unlawful, unfair, and fraudulent business practices.

Officials from MyClaim.com deny the allegations. "We feel she has breached both her consulting agreement and confidentiality agreement," Reinholz says. "We'll continue to pursue remedies against her."

How Self Settle works

Although information about Self Settle can be found at Selfsettle.com, it does not conduct business online. Instead of signing up at the Web site, customers are told to call or e-mail the office.

Self Settle will assemble all the paperwork related to an injury victim's claim — including police and medical reports, a map of the accident location, photographs of the crash scene, and a detailed listing of expenses such as lost wages. Russell says the customers sign a release giving the company access to various records.

"We basically summarize their entire accident into a portfolio," Russell says. "Depending on how traumatic the accident is, it could be anywhere from an inch to eight inches worth of paperwork."

Self Settle, which started doing business with customers in early January 2000, uses a similar fee structure as MyClaim.com. Customers can pay $999 up front, or $1,499 if the case settles.

Russell sees some similarities between his company and MyClaim.com's, but he believes his competitors cross the line. He says MyClaim.com is "simply practicing law."

Yelich says of Self Settle, "I see them doing something different," but declines to elaborate.

Mallen, the lawyer who has sued MyClaim.com, says he was not familiar with Self Settle and could not comment about the business.

Officials from both companies say they are targeting people with fairly straightforward cases. Customers with complicated cases involving serious injury or major legal disputes should hire lawyers, they say.

It's difficult to find other businesses like MyClaim.com and Self Settle. Online negotiating sites are the closest related businesses, but there are key differences. Negotiating sites such as CyberSettle, ClickNsettle, and Settleonline allow customers to submit offers and demands electronically. The process involves both the consumer and the insurer who go through a number of rounds in an attempt to reach a settlement.

Russell says his business could help people prepare for the online negotiating sites. "They're the next logical step for our program," he says.

The lawsuit, which was filed March 21, has raised eyebrows at the Illinois State Crime Commission. "It's piqued our interest," says Jerry Elsner, executive director of the commission. Elsner would neither confirm nor deny an investigation into MyClaim.com's practices and does not suggest the company has done anything wrong. But Elsner says he will be closely following the legal battle playing out in Cook County Circuit Court. "They claim they're not lawyers, but they're giving an opinion."

Neither Gilbert nor her attorney, Kevin Lake of St. Louis, Mo., could be reached for comment.

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