Virtual law firms deliver at least some of their services online. This allows the client to provide more input into the representation while avoiding inconvenient trips to the lawyer’s office, can lower overhead for the attorney, and promotes better overall efficiency.
How much a law firm is “virtual” depends on the type of practice, the market, and the ethical rules of each state in which the lawyer practices. Some practices are much more document-driven, such as estate planning, where potentially all of the practice could be done without physically meeting the client. Other practices, such as criminal defense, require the presence of the lawyer in court, so only a certain amount of the practice could be online.
Virtual Law Firms in Practice
How does it work? In the example of an estate-planning client, the client would inquire online about services and the lawyer would check for conflicts of interest. An attorney can purchase access to an online portal that can run the conflict check and other practice management functions. The portal could also be set up to have the client enter their information and goals, which would result in draft documents being generated for the attorney to review and follow up with questions to make sure the plan best meets the needs of the client. Once the documents, which can be exchanged securely online, are complete, the client signs the documents with instructions from the attorney and in the presence of a notary public.
As you can imagine, the attorney can offer their services at a more reasonable price point because the client is doing much of the data entry, and some of the interviewing and counseling is accomplished online. In addition there are no, or greatly reduced, office space costs.
From a client perspective, there are no worries about traffic, parking, or disability accessibility. I can tell you from experience that people often do not do estate planning until the need is urgent, so some clients will not be able to easily come to a lawyer’s office. While a notary is needed in-person for the signing of the documents, this could be an independent notary who would be much less expensive than a lawyer making a visit to the client’s house.
Virtual Law Firm Concerns
What are some concerns? Certainly, some clients prefer in-person contact. Maybe the lawyer feels they can be more effective in person, even if the subject matter lends itself to virtual practice. But one can still take advantage of virtual law practice infrastructure, even if part of the representation will be handled in-person. For instance, paying bills and exchanging messages could be done securely online. This leads to a discussion of security.
Security and a Virtual Practice
Interestingly, while security can be a big concern for a virtual law practice, it can also be a strength. Obviously, there are risks to storing information online. However, with due diligence in selecting a well-designed portal to work with clients, the law office can be quite secure. The lawyer must also pay close attention to training employees and use best security practices such as strong passwords, firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs), access controls, and up-to-date antivirus scanning. If the lawyer is operating somewhere other than a private office, they need to be especially wary about overheard conversations and screen surfing in addition to cybersecurity. On the plus side, electronic storage can actually be more secure than paper, where you have to worry about natural disasters, copying, unlocked cabinets, and the cleaning crew. A secure online portal where the client signs in for messages and documents will be more secure than email as well.
Ethics Rules and Virtual Practices
An additional concern is the Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys. Not every state will allow a fully online law practice. Lawyers must check the local rules to find out if they need to have an office presence as well. Lawyers must also be very careful to avoid practicing outside of the jurisdictions in which they are licensed. Part of the intake process, which can be facilitated by an online portal, must be verifying where the client is located in order to avoid the unlawful practice of law by providing services where the lawyer is not licensed.
Advertising Virtual Law Firms
Finally, sometimes lawyers may want to start virtual law practices without considering that they must still do marketing. Lawyers must have a marketing plan and follow through with it. Ironically, in addition to online marketing, a virtual law practice will benefit from traditional in-person networking with referral sources. In an article by Lori Tripoli, who designed Concord Law School’s Virtual Law Practice course, one lawyer reported having more time to network because they were not tied to an office.
Virtual Lawyering Could Be for You
Is virtual law practice for you? It depends. If you are comfortable with technology and are willing to put in the time to market your services, it can be a great fit. It can be especially nice for people who might otherwise not be able to run a law practice because they are caring for small children, for example.
If you want to learn the practical aspects of launching a virtual law practice as well as strategies for gaining clients, Concord Law School at Purdue University Global offers standalone online courses for nondegree seekers. For more information, explore our Online Single Law Courses.