Lawyers Journal

Introduction to running a virtual law practice

Two influential forces are driving attorneys and law firms to consider delivering legal services online.

The first is the increase in our clients' expectations for more accessible and affordable legal services through the use of technology. The second is the changing landscape of the legal marketplace and the need for firms to find different means of obtaining a competitive advantage.

Larger law firms continue to downsize and consider outsourcing, and more attorneys, many newly licensed, are opening solo and small firm practices across the country. Virtual law practice provides a way for the legal profession to meet the needs of the general public for greater access to justice, while also addressing the practice management needs of the professionals who serve the public.

What is virtual law practice?

Virtual law practice, one form of e-lawyering, is a professional law practice that is located online through a secure portal and is accessible to both the client and the attorney anywhere the parties may access the Internet.

The key features of a secure portal are the requirements that the client chooses a unique username and password and that the portal uses the same high level of security that clients are accustomed to experiencing when they conduct transactions online with their bank, their investment service or a government entity.

The client portal allows the attorney to work with the client to deliver legal services from the establishment of the attorney-client relationship through to the rendering of legal services and payment. Features within a virtual law office will differ depending on the technology solution(s) chosen to create the practice, as well as the structure of the firm and the goals that the firm has decided upon for this form of practice management.

Some features might include: document storage; legal form and document assembly; file, law and form libraries; online payments and invoicing; billing and calendaring; online discussion threads with clients and others in the firm; conflict of interest checks; jurisdiction checks; and, other client and case management tools.

The technology used to form a virtual law practice is software as a service (SaaS), which is one form of cloud computing. This means that the law office data is stored securely online by a third party. Through the use of SaaS, transmissions between the law firm and the clients are encrypted from end to end.

Typically, SaaS providers house their servers in multi-million dollar data centers with the same high-level security that is relied upon by government, banking and financial institutions. As security updates and new features are added to an SaaS application, those items are automatically added to the user's account, without disruption of service and without added cost to the monthly subscription fee for the service.

Backups of the law office data and maintenance of the technology used to create the virtual law office are also handled, on a daily basis, by the SaaS provider. There are many things to consider when choosing a
technology provider, however (see the link at the bottom of the article regarding ethics concerns).

Unbundling legal services online

A law firm may integrate virtual law practice into its traditional brick and mortar law practice, or a firm could open up a completely Web-based practice. There will be different ethics concerns and best practice requirements for each form of virtual law practice.

With both, however, the services offered online will be in the nature of unbundled legal services. Unbundled legal services occur when a law firm breaks down the tasks associated with a legal matter and provides the client with services related to only a portion of those tasks, rather than full completion of the matter. Some court systems and nonprofit organizations already provide unbundled services online to pro se individuals; see, for example, Law Help Interactive at https://lawhelpinteractive.org and A2J (Access to Justice) at www.a2jauthor.org/drupal.

Many of our clients are seeking out unbundled legal services from companies selling online DIY legal forms, without attorney review of the documents or analysis of the client's specific legal needs. Clearly, there is an opportunity here for the legal profession to step up to meet this public need, as well as to find ways to use this sort of service delivery as a way to add revenue to a law practice. Attorneys can unbundle legal services online to work with pro se litigants, as well as to work with more traditional, paying clients, through the client portal.

Unbundled legal services are also referred to as "limited assistance representation," "limited scope legal services" or "discrete task representation." The ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services has a Web site (www.abanet.org/legalservices/delivery) encouraging the provision of unbundled legal services and assisted pro se representation. The Web site also features a complete index of links to state bar rules and procedures for providing unbundled legal services.

Many state bars are supportive of unbundling legal services. And, you can find further resources on unbundling in a few places: the ABA Pro Se/Unbundling Resource Center's list of online self-help resources is accessible at www.abanet.org/legalservices/delivery/delunbundself.html; the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law's Civil Justice Initiative's "The Economy and Civil Legal Services" study ( www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/the_economy_and_civil_legal_services) (published on May 17, 2010) provides a detailed rundown of the need for more accessible legal services in our country; and, Massachusetts has established a self-help center that provides guidelines and associated materials for "limited assistance representation," or LAR, (www.mass.gov/courts/selfhelp/index.html).

A virtual law practice is able to use technology to deliver unbundled legal services online to clients. If a firm with a traditional law office decides to add a virtual component to its practice, it may decide to offer the virtual law office as an amenity to in-person, full-representation clients, as well as for pulling in additional, online clients, the latter of whom may never end up meeting with attorneys in person. There are a variety of ways that a firm could structure a virtual law practice so that it meets the needs of the attorneys wanting the added revenue stream and flexibility while keeping consistent with the needs of the firm's specific practice areas and client base.

Delivering legal services online is not appropriate for every firm, or for every practice area; but, there are management features of the back-end virtual law office that can be useful to any firm. To list a few benefits of a virtual law practice:

  • Lower overhead; eco-friendly
  • Greater work/life balance and flexibility
  • Ability to expand client base across jurisdictions
  • Competitive advantages, including: tap into a broader market of consumers seeking legal services as an amenity: online access for existing clients of a traditional law practice
  • Added security of hosted backups of law office data
  • Customer service: Clients appreciate the convenience of 24/7 access, the ability to check on the status of their case, pay with credit cards online and communicate with the attorney securely when and where it is convenient for them to do so, without taking time off of work or arranging for childcare.
  • Lessen malpractice risks through the use of procedures and checks built into the technology, such as: documented dialogue with the client; clickwrap agreements to define scope of representation online; conflict of interest check; jurisdiction check; online trust accounting; IOLTA compliance; and, etc.

 

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