Want to grow your practice? Try an online client portal

July 2015 | Around the ABA

The online delivery of legal services to moderate-means clients is geared toward lawyers in solo and small firms who are interested in the best ways to incorporate technology into their law practices, whether that is a mix of technology with bricks and mortar or the creation of a cyberspace-based practice.

Two experts — Richard Granat, president of DirectLaw Inc., a virtual law firm platform provider, and Stephanie Kimbro, co-director of the Center for Law Practice Technology at Florida Coastal School of Law and a fellow at Stanford Law School Center on Legal Profession — offer their insights on how to merge a traditional, office-based law practice with an Internet-based approach on the webinar “Step into My Virtual Office: Using Technology to Serve Clients of Moderate Means.

“We believe the platform for the delivery of legal services is changing from office-based to Internet-based,” Granat says.

As with most things, you must first learn the language. Virtual lawyering, web-based or web-enabled law practice, online law practice or delivering legal services online all fall under the broad term of e-lawyering. Simply put, e-lawyering is using digital technology to accomplish such tasks as drafting or analyzing documents.

“The way that we define a virtual law firm is the use of the client portal,” Kimbro says, which should be familiar to anyone who does secure transactions online, such as banking or shopping. The bulk of legal needs can be handled through the Internet.”

A number of vendors can manage the client portal through a cloud-based system. This system is distinguished from other models such as a lawyer simply working from home and meeting with clients at a coffee shop, using email and a cellphone to communicate with clients and prospects. “We don’t consider that virtual lawyering,” Granat says. “We call that the untethered lawyer.”

A secure online space guarantees confidentiality because all data flowing from the client portal back to the server is encrypted. The legal profession, according to Granat, lags behind other service professions in implementing this concept. Fewer than 8 percent of solo practices and small firms use a client portal concept. Granat says this represents a disconnect between what law firms offer and what clients want, which is to be able to work with their lawyer online.

Branded legal websites offer marketing services, and charge accordingly, which is different from a firm’s website using a secure client portal, because the portal belongs to the firm, not an outside vendor.

There are a number of business models for a virtual law firm that can be created using a client portal system:

  • Full service law firm
  • Legal subscription plans
  • Limited legal service law firm
  • Brick-and-mortar law firm
  • Virtual law firm
  • General practice law firm
  • Niche practice law firm
  • Fixed price law firm vs. billing by the hour

“There are a lot of different ways that the client portal concept and online delivery can be mixed into different types of law practice business models,” Kimbro says. The two most popular law firm business models are completely web-based – known as “pure play,” which offers unbundled or limited legal services – and an online service that’s integrated into a traditional law office – known as a “hybrid,” which offers both unbundled and full-service legal services.

“There’s a marketing challenge to get traffic to your website,” Granat says. For most law firms, the model that works best is an extension of your traditional law practice, which essentially extends your brand and capability online.

The benefits of a client portal online practice include:

  • Increased access to legal services by providing an alternative method of delivery
  • Clients access their own online case files with limited control
  • Online case and client management tool
  • Document assembly and automation

The benefits of an offline practice are:

  • Lends itself to unbundling in more practice areas and litigation-based unbundling
  • Process of unbundling cannot be streamlined or automated

Unbundled legal service firms – also called a la carte legal services, aggregate legal services or limited scope legal services – are allowed if the client gives full and informed consent. There is a large market for these services, Kimbro says.

 A virtual practice can be used within a variety of business models, Granat says, including the popular “job shop” model, which is different than the “value-chain business” model that offers fixed fees. By combining unbundled legal services and tying it to an online platform, “we believe major new markets can be opened up,” he says.

Kimbro says the success of companies like LegalZoom show that consumers are looking for unbundled legal services. The benefits include greater access to legal services, including alternatives to self-help litigation. It also lessens the burden on court systems handling pro se litigants and provides flexibility in the business model. “The benefit is on the public side and on the lawyer’s side,” Granat says.

Consumers who choose unbundled services like to be in control, and have a do-it-yourself personality. “Often they can’t afford full-service legal representation or think they can’t afford it,” Kimbro says. For example, parents of young children don’t want to pay for child care in order to go to a lawyer’s office.

Law firms must embrace making their websites accessible through smartphones, Granat says. If not, you put your firm at risk of losing market share.

A sampling of unbundled legal services that could be delivered online includes:

  • Ghostwriting
  • Drafting pleadings, briefs, declarations or orders
  • Document review
  • Negotiating
  • Coaching on strategy
  • Conducting legal research
  • Organizing discovery materials
  • Providing direction to resources such as local and state rules
  • Advising on court procedures and courtroom behavior
“Step into My Virtual Office” is sponsored by the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services.