The Virtual Law Practice
Are We All Virtual Lawyers Now?
By Jim Calloway
Many lawyers have never considered being involved with virtual law practice. Some have probably never even heard the term before. Telecommuting or working from home is probably something almost every lawyer has done from time to time, particularly since technology tools allow you to do so much more effectively now. But there is value in thinking about this practice style, even if you would never consider adopting it.
Virtual law practices were reported as becoming less common by the 2013 American Bar Association Legal Technology Survey Report. This survey result gave rise to online chatter, with many who had criticized the concept saying they were right after all, and those who supported the concept noting that even if the survey was accurate, it was a small change — perhaps within the survey margin of error.
It is true that differences between the 2012 and 2013 survey were not monumental. The number of lawyers who answered that their law practice was a “virtual” law practice declined this year to 5 percent from 7 percent the year before. The percentage of lawyers who said they sometimes telecommute dropped from 78 percent in 2012 to 73 percent this year. The primary lessons to be learned from these surveys are that relatively few lawyers operate from what they would term a “virtual law practice,” and a large majority telecommute, at least occasionally.
Telecommuting sounds good to many lawyers, especially after a challenging day at the office. There’s a nice, romantic thought of working in casual clothes, looking over a beautiful lake or ocean view. But the reality of telecommuting is often about being forced to stay home with a sick child or an evening spent working at home until late.
Personally, I’ve always thought that the terms “virtual lawyer” or “virtual law practice” were a little silly. Now, they are no sillier than terms like “blogs,” “wikis,” “dongles,” “Bluetooth” or others that creative technology people have made a part of our everyday language.1 No offense is intended to Stephanie Kimbro, Richard Granat, Mark Lauritsen and other pioneers in this area. I understand the terms were meant to refer to online delivery of legal services as opposed to the traditional law firm location. But what do you think of when you hear the term virtual lawyer?
“Virtual” means “almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition” or “not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.” So, if “not the real thing, but made to look like it” is the street definition of virtual, who would want to be a virtual lawyer? My guess is some survey respondents contemplating that question decided they are not virtual lawyers because they are “real” lawyers. There are also some law firms that provide some virtual services but primarily operate from a physical location, providing legal services in the traditional way. So they would also answer as not being virtual lawyers.
Those who self-identified on the survey as virtual defined the term as including “lack of traditional physical office (58 percent),” “minimal in-person contact with clients (52 percent)” and “use of web-based tools for client interaction (46 percent).”
There is no doubt that today’s technology tools really do allow a lawyer to work from virtually (pun intended) anywhere. We have seen other labels applied to the same practice setting like “mobile lawyer” and “home-based law practices.” Some law firms identify themselves as virtual because they mainly deliver legal services online, while others use the term because the lawyers — and often staff — work remotely, even though the firm may have a central location that is open during business hours with offices and meeting rooms that can be scheduled for use.
While most lawyers would not identify themselves as virtual lawyers, almost every lawyer in private practice has had a “virtual” attorney-client relationship, if that means that the lawyer and the client never actually met face-to-face. Phone calls and the post office facilitated representing an out-of-state client before fax machines and Internet communications.
If every time you email a document or a question to a client, you are virtually serving the client, then perhaps we are all virtual lawyers. Depending on how you define the term, it could be that 5 percent or 100 percent of lawyers are in virtual practice.
From my reading, I think of a virtual law practice as being the delivery of unbundled legal services by online systems, with automation and other technology tools being utilized to their potential.
There is certainly some attraction to the idea of having a completely open schedule with no client appointments and no scheduled meetings. If your preferred method of work is having the mornings free for activities and working in the afternoons and evenings, you could do that. And every lawyer smiles at the idea of waking in the morning and logging in to learn that three clients had paid their remaining fees and downloaded the work done for them. Making money while you sleep probably has a universal attraction.
But if you have a busy law practice, virtual or otherwise, you may set your schedule to always pick your children up at school or to coach one of their sports teams. But with clients there will be deadlines; and no law practice, virtual or otherwise, can run itself.
There are many challenges with a virtual law practice today. Several years ago, it was much easier to get your name out online than it is today. It is difficult to get on the first page of Google search results without paying a fair amount of money; and the model for virtual law practices was to have very low overhead and pass the savings along to clients. There are many free social media tools available today, but right now, the investment for social media is time — another scarce commodity. As we have seen, social media sites are attempting to monetize their sites, so it is likely the future will bring an investment in both time and money to market via social media.
I do not doubt the delivery of online legal services will grow, but we have not seen the final evolution of the business model yet.2
One area I think will see huge growth in the near future is computer-to-computer video conferencing. If you have been representing a business owner for years and you need to have a quick chat, why should either of you drive across town to accomplish that? Many computers that have built-in webcams and external webcams are now very inexpensive. There are several services that provide cheap or free video conference and/or screen sharing to review documents for a few participants. These include Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Join.me
Facetime, Adobe Connect, WebEx Meetings, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Lync and many others.
For this month’s Digital Edge podcast, Sharon Nelson and I interviewed Robert Ambrogi, a seasoned legal technology journalist for his take on virtual law practice and the survey results. You can find the interview online
or on iTunes.
And now as a reward for all of you who read through this entire article even though you were not really considering a virtual practice, here are my thoughts on the virtual tools most every lawyer would want to use today:
VIRTUAL PRACTICE TOOLS FOR ‘REAL’ LAWYERS
Access to email on your smart phone
Email is a business reality today. If you are at a doctor’s appointment or an automobile repair, responding to a few emails and deleting pointless ones while you wait is certainly better than working longer at the end of the day.
Access to your office calendar on your smart phone
This has become a necessity today. Lawyers live by their calendars. You may still carry a physical pocket docket book if you want; but after you synchronize the smart phone with your calendar at work and use it a few times, even the most technophobic lawyer will ditch the old-style pocketbook. You never can tell when or where you will be approached by a potential client. If that client pulls out their smart phone to schedule an appointment, you had better be able to accommodate them or risk looking seriously out-of-touch.
Remote access to client and office files
You may not want to regularly do this, but you need to be able to do so when needed. Services like GoToMyPC and LogMeIn have provided remote access tools for some time. A secure VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection may be preferred by other firms. Other lawyers may address this need by taking their laptop workstations home or on the road. Cloud computing-based practice management systems provide full access to client files from anywhere the lawyer can have Internet access. Have a plan for how you do this and make sure you have all information stored on your phone so you can easily log in when required.
Digital client files with scanned images of all pleadings and correspondence.
Cue “Repeating Broken Record” by the artist Calloway. Yes, you have heard this one many times before. Remote access is of limited help if all you can access is the word processing documents you drafted. Using paper files only leaves the law firm vulnerable to disaster, whether it is destruction of the office and all the files or just a temporary situation when you are unexpectedly not allowed to access your office for days.
A website of some kind
Most law firms now have some webpage, Facebook page or other online presence. It is hard to imagine not making it easy for potential clients to locate you online.
For those wanting to learn more about virtual law practices, your attention is directed to Stephanie Kimbro’s blog5
and her book, Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online
Richard Granat writes a blog
and provides virtual practice support
Marc Lauritsen is founder and president of Capstone Practice Systems which provides document automation systems for law firms and wrote The Lawyer’s Guide to Working Smarter with Knowledge Tools
For many years, Mr. Lauritsen and Mr. Granat both served as chair, vice-chair or co-chairs for the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s elawyering group.
1. OK, no one really uses “dongle” in their everyday language — at least no lawyer. But it is certainly a goofy term. I do like the term elawyering, however. It kind of has that superhero feel. Faster than a speeding bullet, the elawyer filed his brief and saved the day. 2. Is “final evolution” an oxymoron? 3. https://join.me. 4. www.zoom.us. 5. http://virtuallawpractice.org/. 6. www.amazon.com/Virtual-Law-practice-Deliver-Services/dp/1604428287. 7. www.elawyeringredux.com/. 8. www.directlaw.com. 9. www.amazon.com/Lawyers-guide-Working-Smarter-Knowledge/dp/1604428260/.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Sept. 14, 2013 -- Vol. 84, No. 23
Mr. Calloway is director of the OBA Management Assistance Program. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help resolving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8065 or firstname.lastname@example.org
. It’s a free member benefit!