Technology provides attorneys with unparalleled opportunities to provide legal assistance from anywhere in the world at any time of day. In fact, a significant number of lawyers are implementing virtual law offices, while others are considering whether a virtual law practice would be appropriate for them. The benefits of a virtual practice attracting lawyers include reduced costs, savings in time, and a resulting positive work-life balance.
But what is a virtual law practice—what are its defining characteristics, and why go virtual? Lawyers continually leverage technology to provide clients with efficient, prompt, and high-quality service regardless of their location. In doing so, attorneys are able to reduce the confines of a traditional bricks-and-mortar practice in favor of delivering service in a way that makes sense to them. Whether sitting in a mountain cabin, waiting for an airplane, hanging out in a beachside bungalow, or sitting at the kitchen table, the notion of virtual law practice continues to gain popularity.
The definition of a virtual law practice can differ depending on who is asked. A virtual practice can range from "a multi-lawyer, multi-jurisdiction law firm that engages in full-service representation to a solo practitioner who interacts with clients online, providing limited scope services," according to Chad Burton, chair of the ABA Law Practices Division's Futures Initiative. "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," adds Burton.
Virtual Law Firms and Offices
As opinions vary on what it means to have a virtual practice, here are some common definitional parameters. A virtual law firm is when lawyers do not use a central office to house attorneys or staff. That is, they work outside the traditional brick-and-mortar setting. Virtual law offices are "an unbundled office rental arrangement where firms or attorneys get the business presence of a traditional office and have access to its resources, such as an address to receive mail, a physical location to meet clients, conference rooms, receptionist and admin services, as well as temporary office space," says Stephen Furnari, founder of Law Firm Suites.
Defining Characteristics of a Virtual Practice
Does the label "virtual" apply to your practice? According to the 2016 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, about 5 percent of respondents consider their practice as virtual.
Characteristics defining a virtual practice include the following: 74 percent of solos indicate that lack of traditional office space constitutes a virtual practice (versus 57 percent overall). "Minimum in-person contact and use of web-based tools also are defining characteristics (49 percent and 33 percent, respectively), along with offering unbundled services (27 percent) and use of a secure client portal (15 percent)."
"Just because you work at home and use email and meet a client at Starbucks, that doesn't make you a virtual lawyer" says Richard Granat, past cochair of the ABA eLawyering Task Force. "That makes you more of a mobile lawyer." Terminology aside, "[t]he 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 use it, according to Burton.
Why Go Virtual?
Certainly, the reduced need for office space is a significant factor. "Another advantage is increased flexibility. A web-based business allows a lawyer to practice law wherever there is Internet access (which, these days, means almost anywhere). Often, connecting with clients (or to reach new ones) requires not much more than a desktop computer, laptop, or mobile device," says Aviva Cuyler, co-founder of JD Supra, and Nicole Black, founder of lawtechTalk.com. Additional benefits include environmental friendliness "given the paperless characteristics of a virtual office and the reduction in carbon footprint from avoiding a daily commute," says Stacey Romberg, founder of Stacey L. Romberg Attorney at Law.
Attorneys also note that operating as a virtual practice allows them to charge a lower rate. "I had access to a particular type of client and particular type of work, and those clients have access to a whole rolodex of attorneys with a variety of different rates," says Mark Taylor, a partner at VLP Law Group LLC. "My initial conception of the virtual law firm was to get my rate back to where the market really is, then I figured I could bring back a lot of work that had left me," he says.
Drawbacks of a Virtual Practice
The pitfalls of a virtual practice can include the increase in technology expenditures as well as concerns over professional isolation. "Technology costs are arguably offset by a reduction in overhead from managing a physical office. The workaround for isolation is to getting out to professional events," notes Romberg.
"An attorney running a virtual law practice should, without question, connect with others online (via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and take advantage of local, real-world networking opportunities" says Cuyler and Black. Another issue to consider is the level of service, the cost, and the ease of use of your existing practice management system compared to a web-based practice management system.
Ethics of a Virtual Practice
When operating a completely virtual practice—one in which legal services are delivered from start to finish online—ethical considerations come into play as do other best practices. Perhaps the most fundamental issue is whether lawyers are meeting ethics standards when it comes to client confidentiality. "Without a secure portal", i.e. a cloud-based storage system like Dropbox, "lawyers fall short," opines Granat. "Best practices call for encryption of email with confidential client information or attachments" but such encryption is not yet mainstream in the legal world, he points out.
Another essential consideration is whether your state permits your virtual practice. "A small minority of states require lawyers to have physical office space" says Stephanie Kimbro, past chair of the Ethics & Professional Responsibility Committee of the ABA Law Practice Division. "Others require a physical address, though in some cases a post office box meets that standard. Still others only require litigators to have a physical address so courts can contact them," notes Kimbro. So, if you are contemplating going virtual, be sure to check your state's rules on this issue.
Tools of the Trade
Virtual firms by their nature rely on cloud or web-based technologies, i.e. "software as a service" (SaaS) platforms to facilitate their delivery of services. Cloud computing has facilitated emerging virtual models. Practice management solutions are a must to run a virtual firm effectively. These solutions "usually serve as the central platform for managing a significant portion of a lawyer's daily workflow." Legal-specific online practice management tools allow lawyers to engage with clients through secure online portals and maximize the mobility of lawyers, says Burton. Examples of some turnkey tools include Clio, MyCase, Total Attorneys. and Rocket Matter. The 2016 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report noted that lawyers are increasingly using the cloud to operate their practices.
Engaging in a virtual law practice is not for everyone, particularly those that feed on collaboration in a physical office setting. Before making the virtual leap, it's important to conduct an "honest personal assessment" says Ms. Romberg. Deciding to launch or transition to a virtual law requires attorneys to weigh the risks and costs against the benefit of achieving balance in their professional lives. As technology continues to enhance the way attorneys serve clients, it also empowers lawyers to alter the manner in which they engage in the practice of law.
Think it through. Perhaps going virtual is for you.
Daniel S. Wittenberg is an associate editor for Litigation News.