On May 7, a debate, of sorts, on the future of law practice was held entirely on Twitter, the social networking and microblogging service that enables its users to send and read messages known as tweets, or text-based posts of up to 140 characters. Participants debated the pros and cons of the virtual law office (VLO), a law practice model which includes a variety of platforms used to deliver legal services to clients over the internet, often, but not always, without any “brick and mortar” law firm with a physical location involved in the process. The tremendous growth in the public’s use of the internet is driving the legal profession to consider innovative methods of delivering legal services using new technology. VLOs are one model by which legal services may be delivered by a law firm in the future. All segments of the legal profession appear interested as demonstrated by the involvement of the American Bar Association, which was one of the sponsors of the Twitter debate.
I know it’s difficult to believe that any meaningful debate could be held on Twitter, where the maximum length of any post is limited to 140 characters. However, as I discovered when I posted some of the tweets from the recent ABA TechShow, Twitter posts are surprisingly informative. I think you will find the tweets from the VLO debate worth your time. To read the full debate, including nearly 400 tweets and re-tweets from more than 50 Twitter users, click http://bit.ly/aMPRsm.
1. What is a VLO?
What is a virtual law office? How does it differ from traditional law offices?
A secure client portal is the key feature of any virtual law office whether web-based or in a traditional firm structure.
Clients have their own secure homepage. Clients can upload, download docs, forms, doc assembly, online payments, and have discussion w/attorney securely.
A VLO is just one form of elawyering. See ABA elawyering task force: http://bit.ly/ccW5U4.
Very few solos and small law firms have a secure client portal that is integrated with their web site.
VLOs differ from traditional firms by providing unbundled legal services online to clients. “Unbundled legal services” refers to the process of breaking down the multiple roles an attorney might play into smaller and simpler tasks. Unbundling (also called “limited scope representation”) offers clients a middle ground between dispensing with lawyers altogether and purchasing legal forms or signing on for the full panoply of legal services. The client is in charge of determining which services are to be performed by the client, which services are to be performed by the lawyer, and the extent or depth to which the lawyer will perform the services. The biggest selling point for unbundling legal services is cost. It costs less when the parties do most of the work themselves and hire an attorney only for what they need.)
On VLOs you have the opportunity to provide guidance, advice in addition to legal forms. That is the practice of law.
2. Factors favoring the establishment of VLOs.
During January, 2009 – one month alone – an estimated 4.5 million people searched online at 1 of 10 websites seeking legal solutions.
I think it is a combination of both: the public’s need for access and the profession’s need for change in LPM (Law Practice Management) as well.
British survey shows 56% of consumers want to deal with their lawyers on-line. Can the US be far behind? http://bit.ly/cbcvJX.
Benefits to clients: convenience of 24/7 access, paying online, budgeting for legal fees, more control over their legal matter.
Legal services can be unbundled at more affordable, fixed fee prices. Clients don’t have to take time off work or arrange childcare
VLO platforms give attorney access to clients located across the entire state vs. their neighborhood. Clients like VLOs too for access to niche practice areas.
To remain competitive in future, we will have to find ways to market our services that match what clients are searching for online.
That’s the magic of unbundling, cheap law for underrepresented clients.
Demand will also grow when clients realize VLO lawyers are less costly because overhead is lower.
Almost every other industry provides a on-line client portal for their customers — except the legal profession.
The legal profession is not “one profession” There are all kinds of lawyers.
Within five years, I predict, most law firms, but not all will have a virtual presence that is more than just a web site.
3. Delivery of legal services online vs. the delivery of legal forms online.
It’s not about the lawyers; it’s about consumers who are turning away from the legal profession and using other alternatives.
LegalZoom reportedly earned $100 million last year. That is business that should go to law firms
VLOs may actually help prevent lawyer websites from being a “one stop document shop” by providing an alternative to LegalZoom as a way to work w/clients.
Why can’t some attorneys provide assistance in completing documents online, if that’s what clients need and want?
The game has already changed our business. It is a matter of the law profession stepping up to the plate.
The interest in on-line legal services is from clients – certainly not from lawyers.
Regardless of whether an attorney wants to use a VLO or not, the option needs to be there because it’s a solution to a public need.
4. Types of legal practice areas appropriate for VLOs.
Anybody have thoughts regarding best type of practice to employ VLO? Perhaps more non-litigation practices
VLOs are not for every practice area or for every client’s circumstances, but meets need of a large segment of our population.
It will never work in criminal practice, or even a serious litigation case. Trial work requires f2f contact.
Seems like VLOs could work well for business formation and consultation, for example.
Just because VLO might not be optimal for some practices (e.g., criminal trial work) doesn’t mean that it should be prohibited for others
5. Potential problems with VLOs.
I await the day a VLO signs in to their client files and finds nothing.
My clients find me via e-mail/phone/etc. How is that different from a client finding you when you’re out of the office?
Clients of VLOs need to read the clickwrap agreements when they register online.
Client documents will be maintained in cloud computing platform like Google docs. There may be security issues. (Cloud computing is Internet-based computing. Typical cloud computing providers deliver common business applications online which are accessed from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on servers maintained off-site by third-party providers.)
Where do the clients find their VLO lawyers when there’s a problem, an emergency or a disaster?
NJ has a bona fide office rule. I agree it was intended to keep out of state lawyers from practicing in NJ without an office in the state.
Here is the citation for NJ Opinion: http://bit.ly/c2G3Ri.
VLOs integrated into traditional practices would not appear to violate the NJ rule.
State Bars have to accept technology. VLO’s need to show the old guard what’s new.
Suggested Minimum Requirements for Law Firms Delivering Legal Services Online from ABA elawyering Task Force: https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/suggested-minimum-requirements-for-lawye-88913/.
NJ fails to recognize that attorneys like other professionals should be able to choose what is best for their practice/clients.
I think the NJ opinion is protectionist and fear-based, and I don’t subscribe to those concepts
State bars need to stop arbitrarily & capriciously making the profession impracticable. Serves no one.
Although I enjoyed the Twitter debate, others disagreed: The First (and hopefully last) Twitter Debate
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