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December 01, 2016 TECHREPORT 2016

2016 Virtual Law Practice

by Chad Burton

The concept of a virtual law practice (“VLP”) has gained relative popularity over the past several years. What constitutes as a VLP can differ depending upon who you ask. That seems to be consistent with the data from the 2016 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report results discussed below.

The definition of a virtual practice can range from a multi-lawyer, multi-jurisdiction law firm that engages in full-service representation to a solo who only interacts with clients online, providing limited scope services. Some think of virtual practices as super tech-advanced, like Tom Cruise moving data around in Minority Report. Conversely, some lawyers think about such practices as a failed practitioner who lives in their parent’s basement, eating chips while staring at a laptop, waiting for clients to appear. The reality falls somewhere in the middle. At some point, the concept behind a virtual law firm will simply be referred to as practicing law. The data that follows suggests we are getting there.

The focus of a virtual practice is about introducing and enhancing the concept of “mobility” into the lawyer-client relationship—both for the lawyer and the client. Not all lawyers want to be tied down to office space, and not all clients want to be forced to visit their lawyer in an office or to interact with outdated methods of communication.

One thing that is evident through the data: terminology is challenging when it comes to nailing down whether a lawyer feels they have a virtual law practice. This has been consistent over the past several years, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The endgame should be focused on whether lawyers are using the tools or certain best practices to run a more efficient and modern firm.

Let’s dive into the data. We will look at how the size of firm matters when it comes to designating whether the virtual label applies or not, tools used to run virtual (or mobile) practices, how the cloud plays a role in this environment, and the use of secure client portals in facilitating client representation.

Size Matters

About 5% of respondents generally label their practice as “virtual.” This is steady from 2015. Approximately 9% of solos consider their practice virtual, which is down two points from 2015.

The surveyed characteristics that define a virtual practice are helpful. Solos tend to focus on the use of office space. 74% percent of solos indicate that a lack of traditional office space constitutes a virtual practice (compared to 57% overall). Minimum in-person contact and use of web-based tools also are defining virtual characteristics (49% and 33%, respectively), along with offering unbundled services (27%), and use of a secure client
portal (15%).

The challenge with any of these characteristics is that they all could and do apply to non-virtual firms. For example, with more and more communications occurring electronically, the need for in-person contact is reduced.

Tools to Virtualize or Modernize a Firm

There are a growing number of tools to encourage and facilitate virtual/mobile practices. The 2016 Survey addressed several options lawyers can use to modernize their practice (regardless if considered a virtual lawyer). It perhaps is not surprising that lawyers are using document sharing with clients (33%) more than expert systems (1%) or online dispute resolution (1%). Significant growth opportunities exist for lawyers to use basic tools such as real-time consultation services (only used by 11% of respondents), fillable forms for document preparation (7%), case status updates (14%), and scheduling (16%).

The Role of the Cloud

The data shows that lawyers continue to use the cloud to operate their practices. It is still a reasonable question whether some lawyers understand whether they are using the cloud or not. A good example of this could be the usage of Microsoft Office 365, which is gaining popularity in law firms (though not evident from the 2016 Survey results). Many lawyers may be using 365 (a cloud-based solution for email, calendar, contacts, and other tools), but they don’t realize it is the cloud because much of their interaction with Office 365 is through Outlook—an app they’ve been using for years and years and years. It doesn’t feel any different to them.

Secure Client Portals

Another role that the cloud plays in delivering client services is the use of secure client portals. This means that the interaction between the client and the lawyer is through a password protected, encrypted, online communication tool. Client portals facilitate the sharing of messages or documents outside traditional communication means, such as email and bike couriers.

The data shows that these portals are consistently used, although growth is not overly apparent. There’s a wide range of types of portals, from the larger firms using customized/in-house solutions (15%), to simply sharing a folder in Box (7%) or NetDocuments (7%) where the client can upload or download files (as basic of a client portal as one can get).

This information confirms that secure client portals have not hit the mainstream. This is likely due to a convenience factor. First, law firms have to adopt a different behavior by sending communications outside of email. Email is the easy way to fire off information both for the lawyer and the client. On the client side, they would have to log in to an online portal and could not just typically respond through Outlook on their desktop.

Two good examples of software that offer client portals (along with a boatload of other features) are Clio and MyCase. Only 4.3% of respondents indicated that they use the Clio client portal (Clio Connect) and 3.7% for MyCase. If lawyers used the client portals to collaborate with clients, those secure messages would be directly tied to that client’s matter(s), thus enhancing the organization. Again, this would mean a change in behavior.

This goes back to a bigger picture perhaps outside this article, but the adoption of client portals weighs security versus convenience. It seems that convenience currently is winning out. For example, 52% of 2016 Survey respondents indicated that they send one or more confidential or attorney/client privileged documents per day to clients via email.

Moving On From Virtual Practice?

Lawyers are using tools that facilitate virtual practices—there’s no doubt about that. The question is whether it matters if a lawyer considers their practice virtual or not. If the label serves a purpose to help lawyers think differently about how they operate their business, then let’s keep it around. If we are in a post-virtual scenario where lawyers just consider the way they operate in a mobile environment as “practicing law,” even better. The key is whether clients are being served well. If that’s happening, let’s not worry about how we label a particular type of practice.

Chad Burton

Chad Burton is the CEO of CuroLegal. He developed one of the nation’s first “new model” law firms, leveraging cloud-based technology and modern business practices to develop a lean virtual law firm. Chad serves on ABA Law Practice Division’s Council and is chair of the Division’s Futures Initiative, and is on the governing board for the new ABA Center for Innovation. He regularly speaks around the country on topics related to legal technology, virtual law practice, and the future of the legal profession. He also teaches Law Practice Management as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Dayton School of Law.