eLawyering, also known as “virtual lawyering,” is becoming an important strategy that enables solos and small law firms to acquire new clients, serve existing clients more effectively, and increase law firm productivity. Delivering legal services online, sometimes called virtual lawyering or elawyering, is a new way to offer legal services using the Internet as platform for delivery.
What Is a Virtual Law Firm?
A virtual law firm can be defined as a law firm that provides a secure web space for its client’s and that is accessible only with a user name and secure password. This “client portal” is the defining characteristic of a virtual law firm. Unlike a traditional law firm website that is just a description of a law firm’s practice, biographical information about the partners and employees of the firm, and some legal information, a virtual law firm is one that incorporates as part of the law firm’s website a secure client portal. The secure client web space provides the platform that enables the law firm to comply with the rules of professional conduct that deal with unauthorized practice, client confidentiality, establishing the lawyer/client relationship, and conflict of interest issues. A true virtual law firm should be distinguished from a law firm that doesn’t have a physical office, but in which the lawyer still provides legal services through traditional methods such as telephone and personal meetings. Using email doesn’t make you a virtual lawyer. Moreover, online services that provide practice management functions such as timekeeping, case management, document storage, which are traditional law firm back-office functions, can’t be considered an example of elawyering unless they are combined with the client portal concept as a vehicle for lawyer/client communication, collaboration, and direct legal service delivery.
Why the Current Interest in eLawyering?
The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA was first organized in 2000 to help lawyers learn how to deliver legal services online. The Task Force has been operating quietly for almost a decade, issuing guidelines, offering CLE seminars, and supporting active discussions among the 120 lawyers who have joined the Task Force list serve. (Any ABA Member can join the list serve). However, it is only in the last two years that interest in elawyering has begun to accelerate. I believe that the new attention to an online approach to delivering legal services is caused by:
- Competition from nonlawyer providers such as LegalZoom, which is demonstrating that consumers, by the thousands, will turn to an online legal solution that is “good enough” in order to save on legal fees.
- A brutal recession that is forcing law firms to rethink their cost structures and pricing models to respond to a new reality of a smaller legal profession serving less clients who are very price sensitive.
- The emergence of a “connected generation” of clients, for whom Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and texting have been their sandbox, with the consequence that they will expect to deal with their lawyers online in the same way they purchase music, travel, books, clothes, socialize, and play online.
- Widespread access to broadband Internet and a dramatic increase in the number of consumers who search for legal information online. Google reports that searches for legal information is one of the fastest growing categories and has increased by almost 200 percent in 36 months.
A recent survey of more than 2,000 online users revealed that a majority of consumers expect good law firms to offer their services online in the next couple of years. The online poll revealed that nearly half (47%) of consumers would be more likely to choose a law firm that offered the convenience of online access to legal services and documents over one that had no online service capability. Some 56 percent said they expected good law firms to give customers the ability to use their services online in the next couple of years. Over two-fifths (43%) agreed that they would change law firms if an alternative firm offered a reduced fee in return for the consumer providing initial details about their matter online.
What Can You Do With a “Client Portal” to Serve Clients More Effectively?
One can think of a personalized web space for each client of the law firm, as an online platform for offering a wide range of functions that ordinarily would be provided by telephone, fax, snail mail, or in-person meetings. Virtual law firms are using the client portal concept to:
- Sell or offer legal advice online;
- Enable clients to upload documents for legal review;
- Create extended secure discussions about a particular legal topic;
- Offer legal documents bundled with legal advice for a fixed price;
- Pay legal bills online, either for a discrete service or as part of a normal full-service representation;
- Provide a convenient client focused calendar to remind a client of important dates and documents that they need to bring to a hearing or to court;
- Provide instructions to a client on how to execute a document;
- Educate a client on how a case will proceed and unfold;
- Reduce telephone tag by providing online notifications and information;
- Provide legal information about a subject area can be provided for the client’s benefit, as well as other digital applications such as a child support calculator, an alimony calculator, or a chapter 7 bankruptcy eligibility calculator, to name only a few digital applications that a client could interact with directly.
An Example of a Killer Internet Application: Web-Enabled Document Automation
An application often offered through a virtual law firm platform is web-enabled document automation. Automated document assembly as a desktop software application has been used by some law firms for years to increase productivity. Client-facing document assembly over the Internet is a new iteration of this process, which increases the power of the application. By enabling clients to insert their own information into a questionnaire, an entire internal law firm work process step is eliminated—the step of a paralegal or a secretary inputting the client’s information into a desktop document assembly solution. A web-enabled document assembly application generates an online questionnaire that enables the client to insert their facts into the questionnaire that after completion instantly generates a first draft of the document, ready for the lawyers further review, analysis, and revision. The client doesn’t realize that they are creating their own first draft of a document when they push the submit button, instantly creating the document. The speed and efficiency of this process can enable the law firm to often reduce its fee to a fixed price, while maintaining its profit margin for the document service. This is the same technology process that nonlaw firm providers have been using for years to compete against solos and small law firms, to the disadvantage of solos and small law firms, and without the benefit of legal advice and law firm accountability.
To be sure, a client interaction with an online questionnaire does not have the same richness as a face-to-face conversation, but the gains in productivity, speed, and convenience are preferable for some clients, particularly when the gains in productivity are translated into lower pricing. Moreover, consumer behavior is changing; and law firm behavior needs to change with it to remain responsive and relevant.
The choices for incorporating web-enabled document automation into a virtual law firm platform are increasing as the major document automation vendors such as HotDocs, Exari, Wizilegal, Business Integrity, and Rapidocs respond to this opportunity.
How Much Does It Cost to Set Up a Virtual Law Firm?
Creating a virtual presence for your law firm as part of your website requires that you incorporate Internet-based software applications that are accessible from your website through a secure user and password-protected client portal. Large law firms have had the capacity to offer this kind of a “client extranet” to their clients for some time, but only recently has the technology become affordable to solos and small law firms.
Within the last 2–3 years a new segment of the legal software industry has emerged to provide a “packaged” virtual law firm suite of software applications that are provided as a software as a service. Software as a service (SaaS) means that both the software applications and client data are stored on the vendor’s server. This configuration enables the creation of a client portal for a law firm at a relatively low monthly subscription rate. The offerings of these vendors vary as well as the pricing, often depending on the range of software applications that are offered.
The cost of these packaged virtual law firm offerings ranges from a one-time setup fee of $99, and no monthly subscription fee for a basic service, to $300–$400.00 a month that includes fully automated and state-specific legal documents ready to go from day one. Thus, the cost of creating a platform for the delivery of legal services is now affordable for even the smallest of law firms, so if a firm wants to take advantage of this approach, cost is no longer a barrier.
Learning More About eLawyering
A good starting place for additional information on this subject is the website of the eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section, ABA, which has developed a set of minimum requirements to help lawyers make sure that their virtual practices comply with applicable rules of professional conduct. The guidelines discuss such topics, among others, as: website architecture; ethics issues; the need for limited services retainer agreement; protecting client data, law firm privacy policies, and client confidences; and compliance with state marketing rules. The draft requirements provide a framework for further discussion. (See Guidelines here.)
It is not inconceivable that at some point in the future almost every law firm, both large and small, will have a secure portion of their website where clients can work with their lawyers and legal services will be delivered. Not every kind of law practice lends itself entirely to offering a complete virtual experience, but every kind of law practice can often find some aspect of its portfolio of services that can be offered online. We can’t predict when the tipping point will occur, but it is coming.
Richard S. Granat is Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association. He is also the president and founder of DirectLaw, Inc., a leading virtual law firm platform provider, and www.mylawyer.com, the Internet’s only directory of virtual law firms providing “unbundled legal services” online. He is also the founder of mdfamilylawyer.com (the first virtual law firm in Maryland) and Maryland’s Peoples Law Library—the first statewide legal information website. In 2009, Richard was named one of 50 “ legal rebels” by the ABA Journal and in 2010, he received the ABA’s Louis M. Brown Lifetime Achievement Award for Innovation in the Delivery of Legal Services. He is also the author of the blog www.elawyeringredux.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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