Virtual law offices gaining popularity in Internet age

originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine

Looking to expand your practice’s potential market? Consider adding a virtual office to your physical one.

The American Bar Association eLawyering Task Force defines virtual law firms as “characterized by access by the firm’s clients to a password protected and secure web space where both the attorney and client may interact and legal services are consumed by the client.”

By the task force’s reckoning, elawyers must offer a secure website set up for legal services, and are not merely lawyers who do without physical offices or handle their back-office operations using Internet-based tools.

Task force co-chair Richard Granat marches in the vanguard of the virtual law firm trend. Granat is also CEO of elawyer platform vendor DirectLaw.com.

DirectLaw sprouted from another initiative of his. “I started the first virtual law firm in the state of Maryland in 2003 (www.mdfamilylawyer.com),” Granat says.

He argues that lawyers should add a virtual law firm component to their practices. Central to his argument is the “latent market” for legal services, a market Granat insists no lawyer can access without setting up a “cyber office.”

Statistics used by the task force state that only 20 per cent of middle-income Americans with legal problems seek legal assistance. Many instead visit “self-help” online document websites. This remaining 80 per cent is the latent market, valued at $45 billion according to task force stats.

Canadians can use similar web resources, so Canadian lawyers may be shut out of a lucrative market too.

Darryl Mountain says customers would get better value from lawyers than from form-generation websites. “If you do your own will using one of these sites, it asks you questions structured in a decision tree,” says the American Bar Association (ABA) eLawyer Task Force member and attorney behind mybclawyer.com. “These sites don’t know what they don’t know. And if you use these sites and something goes wrong, you’re on your own.”

While similar document assembly tools sit in the foyers of virtual practices too, their clients receive followup from a lawyer who asks open-ended questions.

“Say somebody with little knowledge of the law needs a will and plans to move to Australia next week,” Mountain offers. “The document assembly sites don’t ask if you plan to stay where you live for the foreseeable future. A lawyer would say there’s no point in doing your will here. You might as well do it when you move to Australia.”

Aside from document assembly, virtual lawyers offer services like providing legal advice over the phone or the Internet and supporting clients who choose pro se representation.

Being able to skip initial meetings, having rough first drafts of documents handled by a client using web tools and not having to charge for “face time” helps lower a lawyer’s cost of doing business, which enables competition for the latent market.

The task force claims other benefits from elawyering similar to those made possible by other technology, such as better work- life balance and a more eco-friendly and paperless workflow.

Not all clients care about the last point. “I don’t think Davis saves that much money,” says Chris Bennett, who practices video game and intellectual property law with Vancouver-based Davis LLP, of his firm’s remote ways. “We don’t look at it from a cost savings perspective as much as from a client service perspective.” He also takes issue with the task force’s definition of elawyering. “We operate internationally, we run offices across the country,” says Bennett. “Most of my clients are outside B.C.”

“Many people like to have initial contact so they can put a face to a name, know who they’re dealing with,” Bennett adds. “We almost never see one another after the first meeting.”

Another attraction to lawyers is the ability to serve clients further afield. While lawyer mobility rules and other considerations may apply, lawyers like Granat, who runs his Maryland practice from Florida, have shown that lawyers can clear these hurdles.

Not that all “traditional” lawyers are geographically constrained. “I do trademark prosecution work, and there is a Trademark Opposition Board in Ottawa that holds meetings over the phone,” says Bennett. “If we oppose a trademark, we submit evidence remotely, and we can attend hearings in Ottawa in person or by phone.”

Virtual setups seem a natural evolution for firms that have already dipped their toes in virtual waters. Toronto-based Hull & Hull LLP, for instance, opened an office in the online world of Second Life.

Hull’s Managing Partner Suzana Popovic-Montag notes one of several important barriers between virtual law practices and the mainstream — it isn’t currently suited for every area of law. “It’s more difficult when you have litigation matters,” she explains. “There’ll still be examinations for discovery and court appearances, plus law society requirements to prove that clients are who they say they are.”

Even if virtual lawyering goes mainstream, Bennett figures Davis will take a pass. “We don’t have a ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ type of practice,” he says. “I don’t see any advantage in that for our type of practice.”

To Mountain’s knowledge, most Canadian law societies have yet to consider virtual law firms.

The outlook in Mountain’s home province recently cleared a little. “The Ethics Committee of the Law Society of BC concluded in July that the procedure a law- yer follows when drafting a will (specifically, what meetings are required with the client) is a standard of care issue, not an ethical issue,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It therefore declined to express an opinion on the matter. This result paves the way for virtual law practice in B.C.”

Virtual law practice to become norm

To promote the concept of virtual offices, Granat created mylawyer.com, where North Americans who buy legal services can find forms and virtual law firms. In spite of such efforts, the concept hasn’t caught on in Canada. Most provinces have yet to welcome an ABA-defined virtual law firm, according to mylawyer.com.

Granat also recommends virtual practices as extensions of existing firms only. “It’s hard to get work virtually when you don’t have an established practice.”

A self-professed techie, Mountain took some time to create the “back end” of several Canadian document assembly “widgets” using tools from DirectLaw.com. “Developing the decision trees that account for people’s needs is complicated,” he admits. “You have to think about all the possibilities.”

Evolution of the client base will tilt the playing field in favour of elawyering — just not right away. “People today who do wills are 50-plus, and they (with apologies to DirectLaw’s 69-year-old Granat) are not typically familiar with technology,” says Mountain of his own practice.

“People who are comfortable with technology are the 20-somethings who think they’re never gonna die.” They will likely engage lawyers in other ways online, though. “Maybe they’ll do incorporations online,” Mountain muses.

Meanwhile, Granat offers his vision of elawyering’s future. Serving “canned” form creation tools to lawyers will give way to helping lawyers build their own document assembly tools for their practices. He also envisions an “ecosystem” à la WordPress, where developers create applications for the platform that attorneys can plug into their virtual setups.

Granat says: “Eventually it will reach a tipping point where almost all lawyers will have a secure virtual presence for their clients.”

To learn more about elawyering, visit these sites:

American Bar Association elawyering task force: www.elawyering.org

Virtual Law Practice blog: www.virtuallawpractice.org

Richard Granat’s elawyering blog: www.elawyeringredux.com

Heritage Legal Technologies: heritagelegaltech.com

1 Comment
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