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September 08, 2014 Asked and Answered

How do you provide client hand-holding if you run a virtual firm? (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

This month, in connection with our Legal Rebels project, we wanted to look at the growing field of virtual law practices.

Opportunities are growing for lawyers to practice law in digital spaces. But clients still want and need individual attention. If you have a virtual law practice, how can you provide the hand-holding necessary for clients?

ABA Journal reporter Stephanie Francis Ward speaks to three attorneys–all ABA Journal Legal Rebels–about how they manage this.

Listen to the Podcast

Podcast transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: Welcome to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered podcast. I’m your host Stephanie Francis Ward. This month, in connection with our Legal Rebels project, which is sponsored by Abacus, we wanted to look at the growing field of virtual law practices.

Opportunities are growing for lawyers to practice law in digital spaces, but clients still want and need individual attention. If you have a virtual law practice, how can you provide the hand-holding necessary for clients?

I’ve invited three guests to speak with us today, all of whom have been featured as Legal Rebels in the past: Michelle Crosby is the founder of Wevorce, a startup which helps couples negotiate and finalize their divorces. Stephanie Kimbro spent 10 years practicing law through a virtual firm, and has written various books about virtual law practice. And Fred Rooney is credited with starting one of the first post-graduate law firm incubators in 2007.

When we return, they’ll share their thoughts with us.

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Getting a personal connection with clients is really important, particularly when you represent consumers. How do you do that when you don’t see them face-to-face? Michelle, do you want to take that first?

Michelle Crosby: Sure. We use what we call the “high-tech and high-touch approach,” so we’re the actually doing a hybrid of virtual in-office mediations, and by that I mean we generally have one live person in the mediation sessions, and then we’ll type in our team members, which can be a physical mediator or a parenting mediator.

We also to make that the best experience for the client, use the best equipment that we found for sound and video and lighting. So our virtual media is working within the soundstage.

It is an incredible visual experience for these clients, and we are not losing anything on the microphone, so that everyone can hear exactly what everyone is saying. So that helps it makes it seamless for the client and for our mediators.

Ward: I just wanted to ask another question. When you say there is a live person, but they’re not face-to-face, they’d be speaking over the computer, correct?

Crosby: Well, we are in 10 locations, so that means we have 10 physical locations across the country, so if a family comes in and they are able to—they’re within driving distance or can make it to one of our offices, they have an option for them. And so they’ll actually be meeting with at first one live person, who facilitates the conversations, and then works with our virtual team of mediators in their conference room.

The families that are outside of those 10 locations, we still are able to provide virtual mediations to them and then the whole team does appear virtually.

Ward: OK, and what are some of the price—if you can give me examples of price differences between going to a virtual office for a service versus going to a bricks-and-mortar law firm?

Crosby: Well, we’re able to provide our services at about a third of the cost of a traditional lawyer. And by our services, I mean most of our families are working with three professionals, not just a lawyer. So they have an attorney mediator, a mediator with a background in finance, and also a mediator with the background in child development. So all of those services are offered at a third of the cost of just one lawyer. So that’s a pretty phenomenal cost savings, because of the technology and virtual services that we use.

Fred Rooney: You know, in many ways the issue of people in very small community-based solo or small firm practices, it’s a lot different than some of the firms that have multiple locations and all kinds of great technology. I think that we’re seeing a proliferation of solo and small firm practitioners using the very basic tools like the Internet or Skype, and that more and more, people are not necessarily demanding to have that sit down, face-to-face kind of meeting.

I mean, if you think of the whole change in the way we communicate, so much of it now is either through messages, text messages and so forth. And so the whole idea of having clients having to sit down is no longer the case, and that you don’t need a whole lot of high tech equipment to be able to carry out a virtual practice. You know as I said, some very basic tools make it extremely easy for people to communicate and in a becoming-more-conventional way.

Ward: I think that’s a really interesting point, Fred. One thing I have been curious about, I think sometimes not always, but sometimes when you’re representing consumers and they’re in high-emotion issues, your client might have to be told five or 10 times what you think would probably be a good thing for him or her. But it takes that client a while to really hear it, and sink in. And oftentimes, it seems like those conversations are in person or on the phone, so I’m curious about how—because like I said, sometimes you have to tell your clients things at various times to get them to really hear it—what are your thoughts on how that would work out with virtual law services? And anyone can take that.

Rooney: People are on the other end listening, and I agree with you, after years of practice, how many times you have to tell a person something before it sinks in? But I don’t really see that very different then it would be if you were sitting down face-to-face with a client.

Ward: So they’ll take it in an email just like they would in a face-to-face conversation?

Rooney: When they come to you, they’re coming because they know you have the knowledge that they’re looking for. And sometimes, they don’t want to hear what you have to say and that could be online, it could be face-to-face, and that’s a problem that we lawyers always have to deal with who are sometimes the bearer of bad news.

But ultimately, they’re going to figure out that either they’re going to do it on their own, or they’re going to listen to what you have to say, and once they do then you can proceed accordingly.

Ward: Does someone want to add on to what Fred just said?

Stephanie Kimbro: So sure, I was just going to add that I agree with Fred in the fact that that’s a relationship that you face with your client often whether they’re in person or virtual. And so in our model, we work proactively, we’ve brought in neuroscience to really help the client understand the difference. You know, when they’re having an emotional experience, neuroscience has now taught us that emotion is stronger than logical thought, so our mediators and our clients are now using that same language to realize when they flip their lid we call it—if their frontal cortex isn’t engaged—we call it puppy brain.

So that they’re able to kind of stop that moment and realize that they’re having an emotional experience and now is not the time to talk logic, what are the steps we can take to engage what we call their wise owl brain, and get them back to that logical position where they can hear the mediator, where they can hear the other spouse. And so that they’re working within the reality, whether you’re virtual or in person, of what it’s like to be human going through conflicts.

Ward: I think I read somewhere that it was said that Wevorce, Michelle’s company, it wouldn’t work for all divorce cases. Is that correct, Michelle, do you think?

Crosby: Yes. Well, we’re very clear that we’re not for everyone. We require that our families work together to go through the process and sit down together. That’s not going to work for every family.

There is an existing system at the courthouse that where families need their lawyers to walk them through, and so that’s part of our screening process is the first question they’re asked is, “Are you willing to go through this divorce process together sitting down at the table or working virtually getting the same information at the same time?”

And then the second question in our screening process is, “Are you comfortable not filing legal documents until the end?”

So if they say yes to both of those questions, we’re more than comfortable working with them, but that’s it’s a pretty big screening process for a lot of families that do need legal support or other services out there.

Ward: Are there some situations where your mediator might have an initial meeting with a couple and they just know, this is not going to work for them. That it’s going to be too intense, too much fighting—this is probably not going to be their best use of funds to purchase our services.

Crosby: Yes. By that point then the screening process has—by the time they meet with one of our team members, by that time most of those families have been screened out and that we’ve referred them out. And again, many of our families we do refer out to litigators in the areas that we are, or to collaborative law professionals. There are other more affordable mediation services.

So we’re continuing to build that community and making sure that the clients get matched with that service that they need. But most of us know that nationally, most cases settle before they get to trial. And so a lot of our movement and conversation is around saying “Hey, if you start with the settlement process you can at least figure out which pieces you can agree on, and then those other pieces you may have to litigate.”

And so we’re starting to shift that conversation to start with settlement first, because a lot of that litigation mindset that they walk into can stop and inhibit and slow down that settlement process in the backend.

Ward: I have a question for all of you. I’m hoping you can provide just a brief sketch for our listeners. Who is, generally speaking, the perfect client to use a virtual law firm? Stephanie, do you want to go ahead and take that one first?

Kimbro: The perfect clients for a virtual law firm? Well, I think it depends on the structure of the virtual law firm. So if it’s a hybrid where they can come do a combination of both in-person and online, I think that’s a very different client then one that a completely Web-based virtual firm would be able to deliver. And I think it comes down to basic unbundling best practices; so the primary method of delivery through a purely virtual law firm is unbundling, and unbundling ethically under Model Rule 1.2 can only be done if it’s reasonable under the circumstances.

So like Michelle was saying, they do a very thorough (it sounds like) intake process, client intake process to screen when it’s appropriate and what’s appropriate and when for which client. And I think it’s the same thing for a virtual law firm–that really thorough client intake and onboarding process to determine based on the client.

Not only their legal needs, but their ability to communicate effectively through the technology that structure has, whether or not they can—they’re a good match for online delivery.

Crosby: And for us we find that, that fit is for those families that literally do live in those two locations; without some type of virtual service they wouldn’t be able to do this, they would be stuck. And so the virtual services allow them from two very different locations to be working and meeting together. And so that’s the easiest and best example that we have for families that it works really well for.

And the other one is just—you know, there are people as Fred said, we’re getting more and more comfortable living and working and doing most of the things even within our phones. That didn’t exist 10 years ago. So the more and more comfortable people get, we have lots of families that are more comfortable working in the comfort of their own home, especially in the bigger cities. We’re headquartered in the Bay Area, but driving during rush-hour traffic into the city if you’re out in the peninsula can take hours, so it allows them to be more efficient with their time as well.

Rooney: Yeah, and the perfect client for—I guess in my opinion—I don’t know what a perfect client is. One of the most appreciative clients are those people who live outside of the U.S., an ideal ever-growing number of people all over the world who have some type of connection to the U.S. I mean, it’s very similar to being in the Bay Area and being in the peninsula or when there’s a geographic divide it’s a great way to be able to bridge that. But when the divide is across borders, it becomes even, you know, a much, much more effective way of being able to deal with legal issues.

And so, I came in from the Dominican Republic this morning, and I was in a remote area on the top of a mountain where you could get a signal, but sure enough, calls came in from clients who were interested in talking about their legal issues. People who don’t have the ability to get a visa to come into the States, but who have a child support issue in wherever it may be, the Dominican Republic or anywhere around the world, can now have access to lawyers via Skype.

People who have immigration questions and people who have been to court, and there’s so many people in a world that’s becoming much, much smaller, who desperately need to have access to high confidence and high-quality competent lawyers, and they can do it now either online or by Skype or by phone.

Crosby: Another example I can give to that is we have a child-development specialist that specializes in working with families—children with autism during divorce, and developing really unique parenting plans for them. And so we’re now able to connect her with lawyers across the country who need that service, but otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect with a professional like that. So we’re also seeing the benefits for the professionals.

Ward: I’m curious if you think for some practices and certain types of practices, like employment work and family law come to mind, where maybe you have a client who really—obviously you can’t make any promises. Maybe they’re really concerned about losing custody, and they want to talk to you or perhaps you have an employment client who you’ve got a really good settlement offer, but they want to be heard in court. I’m curious for practices that can be very contentious and personal, do you think that there’s always going to be practices and there will always be a need for lawyers to handle those cases in person?

Rooney: I think that there will always be a need just because oftentimes the best way to prevail is to be able to help your client understand how to present himself or herself in court. And if it requires a court appearance, there is some value to being able to do preliminary—provide them with preliminary support by phone, by via the Internet. But ultimately when the credibility of the individual is going to be weighed heavily in a court of law, a lot of times it’s very important to sit down and have that kind of contact with your client.

Kimbro: I’d go as far as to say that it’s unethical in some cases to deliver things completely online. I’m thinking of criminal disent matters or really complex child custody matters. And then there’s some states that have restrictions against limited appearances and ghost-writing rules where I don’t think it all can be done online. So I think in some cases you have to say, is it in the best interest of this client, you know, if the lawyer only does limited representation, and it’s online; or do they really need that full-service representation?

Crosby: Yeah, and that’s why we always encourage if the families are within the location that they do come in office. I mean divorce test is the second most stressful event you can go through. Human beings need to connect, it’s very helpful, and the virtual services allow us to be more efficient and to help more families that otherwise can’t get to those locations.

But we really believe that divorce isn’t a legal problem, it just has legal implications. And so, so much of what the families are going through is better supported when there is someone there to meet with, an accountability partner and someone to be in the room with.

Ward: Have any of you heard of any civil courts that have virtual appearances now? One thing that came to mind, which I thought could be fabulous would be housing court. Do you know of anything like that yet, and could you see it in the future?

Rooney: I know that in New York City there’s an organization that was able to acquire a mobile van, a mobile justice center. And they had the capability of going online in cases of domestic violence, being able to have a hearing online from the mobile center. And you know, linked the petitioner and the person—lawyer on the van directly to the courts and so that’s an amazing way of being able to get immediate relief and not have to get into the court to do it.

Crosby: My goal is to keep families out of court. So I don’t know much about one.

Ward: So I think one thing that has come up when I’ve chatted with solos or small firm folks who represent consumers: I guess the big question is—can the three of you give me one tip on making that personal connection and doing it online? So combining the personal connection of perhaps, like, automation and things like that, that can make it more affordable for the client and make you, help you be more efficient as a lawyer. Stephanie, do you have a tip for us?

Kimbro: I think that finding a way to—for a fellow in a small firm to design their website, so basically the front door to their services in a way that engages that online client. Gets them interested, builds an initial amount of trust. That goes a long way.

So like right now, I’m searching these games and gamifications as ways that lawyers can effectively engage that prospective client in whatever the practice area is that the client is looking for help in. But sort of an initial, kind of warm-up education empowerment that happens online before that prospective client registers for access or to ask a question of the online lawyer.

I think that that really helps prepare them when you start working with the client, then you move from there to web conferencing, have the Google hangout or you Skype or real-time chat or whatever their virtual law firm uses to communicate. But I think that initial online engagement is really critical.

Ward: OK, and Fred, what’s your one brief tip?

Rooney: My one brief tip is very personal. I started working last year on Long Island and shortly after I started I received two tickets for going through—turning right on red. And I got these citations and I said, “I don’t know why I’m getting this.” And I was frantic because I didn’t want to have to pay like $200.00 in fines. So I went online, and sure enough there was a lawyer on Long Island not too far from where I was ticketed. And he gave some very practical advice on what to do when you are cited for turning right on red.

So I contacted him online, sent him an email and he wrote back to me and told me basically, based on the way I didn’t stop, I didn’t know they had to make a full stop, he told me that I didn’t have much of a chance of prevailing. And so I was very, very grateful for the information that he provided at no cost online on his website, and for the fact that he even responded to me. And I know that had I decided to go ahead because I did appeal it, that I would have gone to him, because he was there when I needed it and he was the only person that I would have thought to call. So I think that that kind of information is extremely helpful and provides consumers with at least a beginning, a way to approach the issue. And then of course, it becomes lucrative for lawyers who then receive clients based on the fact that they have user-friendly and supportive websites.

Ward: And Michelle, how about you, what’s your one brief tip?

Crosby: My tip is for actually the practice is to really start embracing innovation. There’s 350 startups out there, all in the law trying to make lawyers more efficient at what they do. So we as a collective, it’s time to start looking at how we become more efficient. And as each new generation moves into the law, I think we’re going to be seeing more and more requests for it. I mean it’s just part of our daily lives, and so how do we bring that into our practice to make us more efficient so that we can offer more affordable services, that we can help more people.

Ward: OK, and that’s everything we have today. I want to thank you all so much.

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End of transcript.

Updated on Sept. 11 to add the transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Michelle Crosby, an attorney, is the founder of Wevorce. The California startup uses Web-based software and online attorney mediators to help couples negotiate and finalize their divorces.

Stephanie Kimbro, a lawyer who has written various books about virtual law practice, is a fellow at the Stanford Law School Center on the Legal Profession. She also services as co-director of the Center for Law Practice Technology, located at the Florida Coastal School of Law. She spent 10 years practicing law through a virtual firm.

Fred Rooney is credited with starting one of the first post-graduate law firm incubators in 2007. The director of Touro Law Center’s International Justice Center for Post-Graduate Development, the New York lawyer’s work focuses on access to justice and helping recent graduates find work.