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A Virtual Visit To A Virtual Law 0ffice

Posted by SIM on March 8, 2007

by DICK DAHL
March 9, 2007

By day, Ralph J. Strebel is a mild-mannered commercial litigator in Mesa, Ariz. But at night, when he logs onto Second Life, he becomes Blackstone Lancaster, intrepid righter of wrongs in a lawless virtual land.

Early this year, Blackstone Lancaster opened a law office in Second Life — an Internet-based virtual world created by San Francisco-based Linden Labs. Players use Linden dollars to shop, date, rent apartments, buy clothes and do just about anything else a person would do in the real world. And those virtual dollars have developed a real-world exchange rate with American greenbacks that has made Second Life into much more than just a “virtual” economy.

Lancaster set up his office and living quarters within a sleek, airy two-story virtual building that Strebel bought for 750 Linden dollars (about $3 American) — joining the small but growing ranks of virtual lawyers in this increasingly popular virtual world.

On March 8, Second Life’s word-search function revealed that the Second Life Bar Association had 102 members. And if a recent foray into Second Life is an indication, they are mostly quite serious about the work they’re doing there — even if it is mostly a hobby.

In Second Life, a visit to a lawyer’s office is the same in some respects as it is in real life. A client schedules an appointment, shows up at that time, and then sits down with the lawyer to talk.

But there are differences.

Take transportation, for instance. Avatars (a player’s online persona) can walk and run, and they fly like Superman — over rooftops or high in the clouds. But serious travel to specific destinations like an office is accomplished via teleportation.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a bearded and bespectacled young man (call him Moby) teleported to Lancaster’s office in the form of a Second Life avatar,

A virtual business

Moby scanned the second-floor office area, walked down the steps to Lancaster’s living area, failed to find him, and sent an instant message to the lawyer: “I’m here. Where are you?”

Lancaster responded that he was outside. In a few seconds, Blackstone Lancaster appeared at the bottom of the steps and walked up. He had a goatee, longish hair and a beautifully cut suit. His cufflinks sparkled.

He invited Moby to sit down across from him and as a virtual sun slowly rose above the horizon, bathing his face in orange light, Lancaster began to talk about practicing law in Second Life.

“Amazingly, people want legal help in Second Life,” he said.

“What kinds of matters do you handle?” Moby asked

“Contract drafting, matters related to the Terms of Service that Linden Lab (the game’s real-world creator) has everyone agree to, partnership and domestic issues, griefing issues — which is when someone intentionally harms your game play; it’s sort of both civil rights and criminal.”

Through Lancaster, Strebel explained that his goal is to make enough money to pay for his Second Life activity, but he also pointed out that this scale is extremely small. Like other Second Life lawyers, his initial consultation fee is 1,000 Linden dollars, which is less than $4 American. As a Second Life landowner, he pays $9.95 per month plus land-use fees, and he plans on investing more in land.

“Property and development, as in real life, is where the money is,” he said. “Renting apartments and land out generates good money for some.”

Lancaster is also involved in an effort to create an actual government of residents — an effort that could be immediately thwarted by Linden Lab if it feels threatened. Specifically, he said, he has a client who is heavily involved in land development and who envisions construction of a Capitol building that would be home to “government and lawyer types” and serve as an advisory parliamentary body to Linden Lab.

“Many people would like a bit more security in transactional matters and a way to get such issues addressed and adjudicated,” he said. “I think if enough people want this, the Linden Lab folks will have to listen up.”

Strebel, speaking through Lancaster, said that he is a Swiss-American dual national who went to law school in England. He’s been practicing for 10 years and is a senior associate in the Winsor Law Firm in Mesa, Ariz., doing commercial litigation, domestic relations and bankruptcy work.

“I guess it is sort of odd that that I practice all day at the office and then play lawyer online,” he said.

‘Here it is the Wild West’

In another corner of Second Life, a virtual lawyer calling himself Monday Beam created a law office in late January and announced that he was open for business. Monday Beam is the avatar of a Chicago solo practitioner (and actor and writer) who also requested that his name not be used.

His request for anonymity stems in part from the fact that he’s chosen to perform some of his Second Life law on the wild side and he’s concerned that the image wouldn’t go over so well in the real world.

At the appointment time in his office, Beam materialized with an “associate,” Alfonso Descenna, who has slick hair, carries a violin case and looks like a mobster.

“Mr. Descenna handles clients and is also working with me in a real-estate venture,” Beam said. “He also provides me ‘protection,’ of sorts.”

“What do you mean by protection?” Moby asked.

“You do know there are guns and violence here in Second Life, yes?” Beam responded. “When we are investigating ‘cases,’ we sometimes come across rough characters.”

Moby asked Descenna if he is armed and Descenna said no.

Then Beam spoke. “Go ahead and show him the guns, Fonso.”

Descenna reached into the violin case and extracted a very large handgun with a silencer.

“See Colt 45,” he said.

Then Beam extracted his own weapons, a pair of handguns given to him, he said, by a “dwarf demoness, of all people.”

“Here it is the Wild West,” he said and explained the lawlessness is what brought him and Descenna together when the two entered the world at about the same time only weeks earlier.

“We were at a shop, in a ‘mature’ area, exploring. In the midst of my shopping experience, my avatar, through my own newbieness, bumped into a female who was accompanied by a male friend. The guy used profanity and told me to ‘watch it.’ He made several slurs. I told Mr. Descenna about it and we approached the couple together. The guy continued with his insults, and Mr. Descenna ‘did his thing.’“

(Shooting avatars on Second Life doesn’t harm them. It only bounces them back to their home location.)

Beam loves the guns. But he said also loves practicing Second Life law. His first case, he said, was representing two gay cross-dressing men who were kicked out of a bar after the owner read their profiles.

His most lucrative Second Life matter to date has been a custody battle resulting in drafting a document for 30,000 Linden dollars, or “about a hundred bucks.”

“There are plenty of Second Lifers in need of legal aid,” he said.

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