Virtual Law Practice

ABA TECHREPORT 2017

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.

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This year’s take on virtual law firms for TECHREPORT may feel a bit more like an opinionated rant. Or, as the kids say: “real talk.” I wrote a pretty straight forward article on this topic last yearIt is still legit. Go read that for background on what it means to be a virtual law firm. Here is the link.

I think you should take the time to read all 139 pages of the results in Volume IV, “Mobile Lawyers.” The data is very instructive. It shows what tools and behaviors respondents are using. (I say “respondents” on purpose. I will dive into that issue more in depth below.) Depending upon your role in the profession, here is how the data could be helpful:

  • If you are a practicing lawyer, you can see what others are doing or not doing. If you feel like you are behind the curve on your technology, the data will help you figure that out. If you think you are ahead of the curve, the data may be affirmative or break your heart because using Windows XP is really not ok.
  • For legal tech companies, the data is helpful for competitive analysis.
  • For bar associations, the report shows you ways to better educate and interact with your members with practice management opportunities.
  • If you have a hankering to do something innovative, the data can be instructive to identify holes in current offerings.      

Here is why the data really matters in the context of virtual law practices:

As I have harped on for years, the label “virtual law firm” is helpful to spark conversations regarding modern law firm models. In 2017, running a virtual (or mobile) law firm is just another way of practicing law. It means that you, as a legal professional, are leveraging technology to communicate more effectively with your clients, have figured out a business model that allows you to be more flexible with your fee structures, and are able to work from anywhere—you are not tethered to a desk in your law firm office in order to get work done.

As the data shows, most responding lawyers haven’t gotten with the program to leverage technology that will help them run better firms. There really is no excuse for this to be the case. The ABA has a boatload of resources on the tech lawyers need to run a practice. Go to TECHSHOW in the Spring. Check out the LTRC website. This even warrants a shameless plug for ABA Blueprint.

Some examples:

  • Only 52% of lawyers using the Cloud
  • Only 34% of lawyers using practice management software

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Perhaps obviously, 99% of lawyers report checking email outside the office. That means that 1% of respondents are not doing this? Or, 1% of respondents had too much wine while they were responding to the 2017 Survey and hit the wrong button.

Let’s think about the use of mobile technology in the context of modern client service. We remain in a time where lawyers are trying to find work from any angle they can (especially solo and small firms). Competition is tough because there are companies who exist to help consumers get access to the legal system and this does not always include lawyers. There is a shift where people want to get help for legal services the same way they buy stuff from Amazon: online and at their convenience from a smartphone. This need is being filled by companies like LegalZoom, Avvo, and Rocket Lawyer, among others.

At the same time, we have the next wave of regulators trying to stifle innovation. Recent ethics opinions limit the ability for lawyers to take referrals from companies like Avvo that leverage their marketing power to reach consumers, and then refer such cases to a lawyer in return for a marketing fee (e.g., Ohio and New York). In other words, lawyers who can get referrals from companies that have significantly larger marketing budgets are precluded from doing so because some regulators want to take a self-preservationist approach to how lawyers serve clients.

What does this have to do with virtual law firms? A ton. Lawyers who run modern law firms expect to get cases in modern ways—such as the internet. Oftentimes, referrals from online referral sources such as Avvo are paying less than what a traditional firm would charge. This means that the law firm has to be able to do the work for less. If the law firm has a lower overhead,[1] [2]  it is more likely to handle such cases from a financial perspective. The correlation is that modern law firm delivery models result in more revenue to the lawyers and more access to legal services to the public. Regulating against options that achieve both of these goals is harmful to the profession and the public.

Thoughts on General Survey Responses

Now, before diving in, I am not criticizing the Legal Technology Survey Report process. It goes out to 70,000 lawyers. The actual respondents fall into the category of: it is what it is.

When we look at the respondents in the context of virtual law firms, it seems instructive. Let’s focus on two relevant demographics: gender and age. I am sure some people will disagree with this, or feign being appalled, but we still have an issue where the profession in certain respects is dominated but the demographic of older males. That seems to be the case with those who participated in the 2017 Survey : 75% of respondents were over 50 years of age (51% were over 60 years old), 73% of respondents have been practicing for over 20 years (54% were over 30 years of practice), and 73% identified themselves as male.

I believe it is fair to state that virtual (or truly mobile) law firms will be more popular with a younger demographic of lawyers. Part of the allure of a virtual practice is that, if done right, the cost of entry to starting a practice is lower. Cloud-based technology is generally less expensive and removing W-2 employees and traditional office space from the mix helps the cause.

I also want to highlight a specific group that embraces mobile practices: Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN). This bar association is comprised of about 90% female lawyers who regularly relocate from state-to-state and country-to-country because their spouses are active duty military. The need to move to a different jurisdiction is outside of their control. This has resulted in lobbying for rule exemptions to allow these lawyers to temporarily practice in a state without having to take the bar exam each time they move.

The need to embrace technology by MSJDN members is super important so they can maintain mobile practices. The technology and business practices identified in TECHREPORT is right up the alley of what MSJDN members need.

Wrapping Up

Sorry/not sorry this was not your normal “virtual law firm” article. The concept of mobile/modern law firms is important. It plays a role in how we help consumers get access to legal services and how lawyers who are just getting started or are mobile by definition (e.g., MDJSN members) need to operate to run effective businesses. Take a long look at the data, ingest it, and use it to be apart of modernizing the delivery of legal services so more consumers can get help.

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