April 20, 2011 Practice Points

Practicing Law in a Struggling Market: The Virtual Law Firm

By Julia Guinane

After John Riley and George Ernst graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 2008 and 2007, respectively, they were faced with the reality that many firms were participating in a hiring freeze. Riley and Ernst decided to launch their own venture: a firm specializing in international and immigration issues, conducting business almost exclusively online. It bills itself as a virtual law firm, handling a bulk of its work on a web portal that allows clients to access information and ongoing updates on their cases. Because of the low overhead, Ernst & Riley is hoping to provide competitive services at lower costs. The firm provides links on its website to government forms for visas and citizenship as well as links to updated news about the immigration process. The staff includes the two partners and one intern.

Stephanie Kimbro, a North Carolina attorney, launched her virtual firm in 2006 to target lower- and middle-income clients in North Carolina who want basic legal services for estate planning and small business issues, such as contracts and partnership and shareholder agreements. In many cases, she prepares and reviews documents and then instructs her clients to file them in court. Kimbro charges a fixed fee for services and lists them on her website. For example, she charges $200 for a last will and testament, $50 for a living will, and $300 to process a name change.

Delta Law Group, a Pittsburgh-based virtual firm, charges an average of $150 per hour for services ranging from divorce and other family-law issues to bankruptcies, criminal defense and small-business startup, real estate, and tax matters. The firm's standard retainer fee is $1,500. Brian Walters, the founder of the firm, has one administrative staff employee and a network of 15 contract attorneys who handle cases for Delta. Walters notes that his clients definitely appreciate the 24/7 contact. "They get the information as soon as we do."

While Walters is in the process of assessing the pros and cons of virtual law after three years, he has said his biggest challenge is marketing, because, up until now, he has been focused on getting the concept and technology in place. He notes that "to sustain a heavy flow of business, the Internet is increasingly becoming the most prominent marketing tool. . . . A lot of lawyers are struggling to market in this new environment."

Julia Guinane is with Cohen Kennedy Dowd & Quigley, PC in Phoenix, Arizona.


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