YourABA December 2011 Masthead

State rules leave virtual law offices vulnerable to misconduct

“Lawyers practicing with a [virtual law office] must address a number of unique issues to avoid setting ‘virtual’ foot in any state in which they are not licensed to practice,” says Daniel J. Siegel, a frequent lecturer and author on legal technology, ethics and professional responsibility issues.

In his Law Practice Magazine article, “Watch Where You Set Your Virtual Foot – Advice on Dealing with Varying State Rules,” Siegel digs into the issue of virtual law practices and the state rules that he believes can leave a lawyer “drowning in ethical quicksand.”

Virtual law offices are an ideal way to reduce or eliminate the need for a physical office space.  But the apparent freedoms of a VLO come with a slew of potentially conflicting standards to observe to ensure the virtual practice is in proper order. “Resolving the issues relating to VLOs requires knowing the rules in each jurisdiction in which the lawyers in the VLO intend to practice,” Siegel emphasizes.

Conflicting rules exist as to the definition of unauthorized practice, as well as relating to the establishment of the client relationship and standards for confidentiality, among others. Such variations necessitate that would-be virtual lawyers answer several questions, including “Does the VLO constitute the unauthorized practice of law in jurisdictions other than those in which the members of the firm are licensed?” and “How will the VLO define and confirm in writing the attorney-client relationship?” In addition, “What additional safeguards should be employed to ensure the confidentiality of client information?”

Though ethical standards vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, there are guidelines that every VLO should follow. According to Siegel, “A primary example is the ABA Law Practice Management Section eLawyering Task Force’s ‘Suggested Minimum Requirements for Law Firms Delivering Legal Services Online'.”

The standards set by the task force suggest many general guidelines.  For example, a VLO must serve only clients who are residents of the state(s) where the firm is authorized to practice. In addition, a VLO website must clearly describe any limitations on its services, including the requirements and disclaimers necessary to establish a lawyer-client relationship.

“There will always be ethical challenges … whether they relate to physical brick-and-mortar problems or the technology-centric issues that confront VLOs,” Siegel points out. “Regardless of the type of practice, it is by paying careful attention to the applicable rules of professional conduct that lawyers can maintain best practices while ensuring that they address the needs and best interests of their clients.”

Law Practice Magazine is a publication of the Law Practice Management Section.

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