Setting Up a Web-Based Virtual Law Office
Consumers are actively seeking more affordable and convenient access to legal services over the Internet. Due to the cost of traditional legal services, they are turning to cutting and pasting together sample online legal documents or purchasing cheap legal forms online without the benefit of attorney review. The economic recession has further hastened this trend. To address consumer demand, more attorneys are opening web-based virtual law offices (VLOs) or adding a VLO to an existing traditional law firm structure to deliver legal services to clients online.
There are different ways to define and structure a virtual law practice. Simply put, a virtual law practice is a professional law practice where an attorney is able to work with clients over the Internet through a secure portal from the establishment of the attorney/client relationship through to the payment of and final rendering of legal services. The technology used to create and maintain a VLO is a software as a service (SaaS) hosted system, often referred to as practicing law “in the cloud.” To set up a virtual law practice, an attorney should be aware of a number of practical and ethical considerations discussed below.
Decide on a VLO Structure
Before deciding what technology to use to form a VLO, an attorney should decide on a management structure for the practice by considering the following:
- Will you be providing unbundled legal services to online clients, working with an existing client base offering full-service representation, or a combination of both?
- Do you want to provide strictly transactional legal services, such as wills and advance directives or small business setup documents? Or do you want to communicate with clients online through more interactive discussions and provide other forms of legal services?
- Will your firm be a multijurisdictional solo practice, or will you be working with other attorneys online to combine resources across jurisdictions?
- What law practice management tools are most critical for the VLO? What administrative tasks do you need to handle through your VLO, and will you need to integrate your existing law office software into the VLO?
- Would you like to collaborate with other attorneys or virtual assistants online through your VLO or will access be limited to online clients?
Choose the Technology to Deliver Legal Services Online
After deciding how to structure the VLO, carefully choose the technology. Consider how quickly you learn new systems and whether you can set and abide by your own security practices for the daily use of a VLO to protect your clients (and yourself from malpractice). Run a cost analysis of what the product is providing, including the following: 1) how much the technology may save in time and law office resources and overhead, and 2) how the product helps to generate additional or new client revenue. Most SaaS products charge a monthly fee, which includes support, updates, maintenance, and backup of your law office data. Also, take into consideration the costs that your practice might spend purchasing regular updates to installed software or for IT consultants to handle maintenance, updates, security, and other IT issues.
Some legal SaaS products on the market include DirectLaw, Clio, Lexbe, Rocket Matter, LawRD, and VLOTech, which was recently acquired by Total Attorneys. Some of these products do not provide the ability to deliver legal services to the public online, but do provide law practice management tools, such as time and billing, contact and client management, and other tools online. Attorneys should choose the product that makes the most sense based on the management structure chosen for the virtual law practice.
Attorneys may also create their own VLOs using piecemeal applications. For example, some attorneys will use Basecamp by 37signals to work with clients online, whereas others may use GoToMeeting conferencing. Although using these technologies piecemeal may cost less in the short term, the risks should be considered. An attorney’s practice requires a higher level of security and confidentiality for client data than many other professions for which these applications were developed. Because of the unique risks that virtual law practice has for attorneys, it may be safer for an attorney considering opening a VLO to first understand these concerns before attempting to add piecemeal technologies to their traditional law office model. Many of the products created by SaaS companies specifically for the legal profession will have these ethics and malpractice checks in place already as well as have policies and procedures for data return and retention, confidentiality, and security that are better suited to the professional requirements of a law office.
Research the Hosting Company
After choosing a product to form a VLO, conduct due diligence on the company providing the service. The following are some examples of issues to consider.
- What are the data return and retention policies of the company for the law office data?
- Who has access to your law office data? What is their policy on confidentiality?
- How are backups handled and how often? What are the export features or is there an offline version of the software or way to get a hard copy of your law office data for in-house backup (if you need it).
- What are the server locations, and is there georedundancy?
- What is the response time for support? Is the customer service of the company satisfactory?
Understand the Ongoing Ethics Issues Involved in Operating a VLO
Before opening a virtual law practice, it is critical to understand the unique ethics and malpractice concerns that may arise. These will depend on the structure of the virtual law practice that the attorney has created. Start by reviewing any ethics or advisory opinions from your state bar related to the topic.
Some key ethics and malpractice issues to be aware of when operating a VLO include the following:
- Avoid the unauthorized practice of law in other jurisdictions. Make sure your system has a jurisdiction check. Make it clear throughout your VLO to the viewing public exactly which state(s) laws you are licensed to practice.
- Run a thorough conflict of interest cross-check between your online clients and your in-person clients if you are operating a practice that will work with both.
- Pay attention to the advertising rules with regards to your VLO site as well as any other online or traditional advertising methods. Regulations regarding online advertising are being reviewed and updated by many state bars at this time.
- There will be even more unique issues for the multijurisdictional virtual law firms involving more than one or two attorneys. Make sure that you understand how each state’s bar regulations will work within the single VLO structure. Watch out for residency requirements and IOLTA compliance issues among others.
- Make sure that the VLO clearly establishes the online attorney/client relationship through a clickwrap or other form of electronic engagement letter. Clearly define the scope of online legal representation so that clients understand the nature of limited legal services.
- Protect the confidentiality of your client’s data on the VLO by securing any mobile devices and by abiding by a daily set of best practices for use of the technology.
- If you are accepting online payments for legal services in your VLO, make sure that your merchant account service understands your state bar’s trust accounting and IOLTA requirements.
Enjoy the Benefits of a VLO
There are multiple benefits for an attorney practicing law on a VLO. The technology streamlines the attorney’s productivity and makes the management of clients and the business aspect of running law office more efficient. A virtual law practice greatly reduces the amount of office waste and need for paper that a typical law office generates. Aside from the ecological benefits of reduced waste, the cost to operate this form of law practice remains minimal and reduces overall office overhead. These benefits will extend out to clients and will in turn help to build an online client base through recurring clients and referrals.
Of equal importance, operating a VLO allows for flexible work hours for the attorney and may be used to create a better work/life balance for legal professionals. For example, the technology may be used to take a couple months or a year off from a traditional law firm to care for an elderly parent, ill spouse, or child without sacrificing a legal career. Access to a Web-based virtual law office is 24/7 for both the attorneys and the clients so both may communicate on the VLO when it is most convenient for them.
The technology used to delivery legal services online is revolutionizing the way that the profession approaches law practice management. Consumers expect their legal professionals to provide secure services online just as they receive other professional services over the Internet, such as banking, investing, and other sensitive business transactions. Attorneys wanting to stay on top of their profession would be wise to understand and embrace this complementary method of using technology to practice law. In doing so, the legal professional may take a more active role in setting high standards for the use of technology to deliver legal services online.
Stephanie Kimbro operates a Web-based virtual law office in North Carolina and is the recipient of the 2009 ABA Keane Award for Excellence in ELawyering. She is the cofounder of Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC (VLOTech), which was acquired by Total Attorneys in October 2009. Kimbro has presented CLEs for the North Carolina Bar Association on virtual law practice and teaches a course for Solo Practice University regarding ethics and technology issues in virtual law practice. She has authored an ebook, Practicing Law Online: Creating a Web-Based Virtual Law Office , and is currently writing a book on virtual law practice for the ABA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.