The notion of a "virtual" law practice - delivering legal services over the Internet rather than bearing the ongoing expense of a bricks-and-mortar office - has been kicking around for years. But thanks to the latest technology and Web services, it's more practical than ever. Cloud services in the form of virtual law platforms have sprung up to make establishing an online practice relatively painless for attorneys. And just as millions of people have become comfortable with going online to bank or choose a mate, clients these days find the idea of handling sensitive legal matters over the Internet less daunting.
The speed with which virtual practices are proliferating is suggested by a draft ethics opinion on the subject released recently by the California State Bar's professional responsibility committee. The opinion concluded that even though virtual law practices may have to take extra precautions to protect clients' confidentiality, the Rules of Professional Conduct are the same for attorneys operating online as for those practicing in a traditional office (Draft opn. 10-0003).
Some lawyers have dispensed with their physical offices completely, delivering legal services to clients entirely online. Others have adopted hybrid approaches, doing most of their lawyering online but using a part-time office occasionally to meet clients face-to-face. And still others have set up online tools as an adjunct to their full-time bricks-and-mortar law office practice.
Several Web-based legal practice-management platforms are now available for attorneys who want to set up and maintain a virtual law practice, including Total Attorneys (www.totalattorneys.com)
and Direct Law (www.directlaw.com).
Like most cloud-based services, the platforms are paid for on a monthly subscription basis. Total Attorneys, for example, charges $1 per user per month for its basic plan, plus $35 a month for processing client payments. Direct Law's basic subscription plans cost $49 per month for the first user (plus $50 for each additional attorney), and $199 per month for a deluxe package that includes an optional website and Web-enabled legal document automation. These services adhere to the same encryption standards used for online banking and by government institutions.
Establishing a virtual law office offers several advantages. The most obvious is convenience. Lawyers aren't chained to an office or a desk; their office is wherever they have access to the Internet - which the last time we checked was pretty much everywhere in California except parts of Death Valley. A virtual law practice also has very low overhead compared to a bricks-and-mortar law office.
Oakland bankruptcy attorney Christine Pham set up a virtual law practice last spring after leaving her job at a large firm. Pham and another affiliated attorney conduct the bulk of their practice online and by phone. For the occasional client meeting, they rent a temporary office in a business center, paying according to the number of hours they use it.
"Having a virtual law practice gives us lots of flexibility with our time," says Pham. "We can do other things we need to without going into an office every day. Since we're bankruptcy attorneys, we're meeting clients only occasionally, so we can work from home or some other space most of the time. It's definitely more cost effective than having an office in downtown San Francisco."
Delivering services online gives attorneys ready access to the younger "connected" generation, which grew up with online interaction and has come to expect it in every facet of living. A virtual law practice can also help lawyers get a piece of the market that's gone to legal document sites such as Legal Zoom, which over the past several years have picked up millions of budget-minded clients by assisting with simple wills, patents, and business incorporation documents. Every virtual law practice is potentially its own mini-Legal Zoom, able to provide clients with online legal documents at any time of day, delivered securely to the client's computer. But individual attorneys have the advantage that they can legally dispense legal advice as well.
Having a virtual law practice can be an effective marketing tool for retaining clients, alerting them to additional legal services, and for attracting new business. With blogs, newsletters, or legal tips added to a Web portal, when clients sign on to review their matters, they'll see information touting the practitioner's expertise.
Virtual law is convenient for lawyers, but it's also catching on because it works well for many clients, or at least the type of clients who don't need to see an oak-paneled reception area to feel good about their representation. One of the top complaints by clients everywhere is: "My lawyer doesn't return my calls." In a traditional practice, it's difficult, sometimes impossible, to juggle all of the paperwork, meetings, and court appearances while still returning every phone message the same day it's received. With a virtual law practice, clients can have access to their case files and calendar 24/7 through a secure portal. They may still need more information or reassurance, but often the number of phone calls they make to their attorneys drops significantly.
Another aspect of virtual law that clients appreciate is pricing. This approach to practice makes it easier to offer unbundled, fixed-fee legal services, which an increasing number of clients prefer over the billable-hour model. With a platform like Total Attorneys, lawyers can log time for either fixed-fee matters or hourly billing, depending on the needs of the case.
In short, the practice of virtual law is here to stay, and it's an especially attractive option for some, given the soft job market for attorneys. Certainly, the virtual commute is hard to beat.