Monday, July 07, 2008

Virtual Law Practice A New Home

Virtual Law Practice has been moved to a new location. This blog was started several years ago when I first started practicing law from a virtual law office. Blogger has been great, but now I'm moving the blog to its own web address.

For future posts on virtual law practice, elawyering or virtual law offices, please visit here: Virtual Law Practice.

Thank you!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Checklist for Opening a Virtual Law Office

The following is a basic checklist for attorneys considering opening up a virtual law practice.

___ Choose a VLO hosting company and find out what it will require in order to set up your VLO. Of course, I'm biased, but I recommend Virtual Law Office Technology (VLOTech).

___ Register a domain.

___ Retain a website designer to create a VLO website. It can be as simple as a single homepage or a more complex site with legal resources and articles for the public and your clients. Consider having a VLO website with blog functionality. Blogging on your VLO can be a useful marketing tool and resource for your clients. VLOTech refers its clients to Grant Griffith's company, G2WebMedia. Griffiths, of Home Office Lawyer blog fame, has experience working with solo and small firm practitioners and creates websites with blog functionality to improve VLO marketing.

___ Make sure that any part of your website that handles confidential information, the actual VLO, registration and login for clients, is protected by an SSL certificate (https and the browser lock symbol). Your web hosting company may help you with this or you may need to purchase an SSL certificate separately.

___ Establish an account with a credit card processing company to use for your online payments, such as PayPal or your bank. If you plan on taking retainers through the VLO, make sure that you have the approval of your state bar regarding transfer of the client's funds to a credit card processing company before going into your trust account. There was some discussion about this on Solosez not long ago and I've posted about it here.

___ Draft the terms and conditions for use for your general website and the clickwrap agreement for your secure VLO website.

___ Establish a response time policy. For example, let clients know that you will respond to their online requests within 24 hours.

___ If you will be handling transactional matters, prepare any forms or worksheets for collection of client data. These may be uploaded to the clients through the VLO and downloaded for you to review once completed by the client.

___ If you will be using the VLO with existing clients or in a litigation practice, draft a letter or email to clients notifying them to register and use the VLO to keep track of their cases.

___ Decide how you plan on handling client engagement letters, either through the VLO case dialogue and clickwrap agreement or by traditional letter uploaded to the client, or a combination of both methods.

___ Decide which billing method or combination of methods you plan to use. Consider providing sample fixed fees, billable hour rates or a range of costs on your VLO website.

___ Discuss your planned VLO practices with your malpractice insurance carrier and ask about discounted rates due to the use of technology to reduce malpractice risks.

___ If you will be practicing remotely, review the security of your mobile devices.

___ If you plan on using the VLO in conjunction with other law office software, have a data backup policy in place.

__ Create a backup Internet access plan in the event that you only have one method of connecting to the Internet and it goes out.

__ Check with your state bar's rules of professional conduct regarding advertising and website content before getting started on any marketing campaigns. (Hat tip to Aaron Johnston for reminding me to add this one!) I've written a little about this here .

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Elawyering vs. Virtual Law Practice - A Primer on Terminology

Virtual Law Practice Terminology for Beginners

Given the rapid development of Web 2.0 applications to provide online legal services, I decided to create this mini-primer which will have to be updated regularly. Feel free to contact me with suggestions and additions. I've noticed a lot of confusion of terminology regarding online legal services so I thought this resource might be useful.

Elawyering - This term was coined several years ago when the concept of online legal services was in its infancy. The term means the practice of law online and includes everything from form-generated documents for sale and purchase to emailing your clients from unencrypted "contact us" forms on attorney websites. The ABA has an Elawyering Taskforce that covers these issues and appears to be attempting to broaden their concept of virtual law practice.

Virtual Law Practice - a professional law practice that exists online through a secure portal and is accessible to the client and the attorney anywhere the parties may access the Internet.

Virtual Law Office (VLO) - a web-based law office which allows for the attorney and his or her clients to securely discuss legal matters online, download and upload documents for review and handle other business matters in a secure digital environment, including all of the backend management functions of a traditional law office. A VLO may be the sole software used by the virtual attorney or may be used in conjunction with a traditional law office to provide online legal services to clients.

Virtual Lawyer - a licensed professional providing legal services through a virtual law office to online clients.

Virtual Legal Assistant - a professional legal assistant who accesses the virtual law office and assists the virtual lawyer remotely. See Virtual Assistance for a Virtual Law Practice.

Mobile Lawyering/Mobile Attorney - an attorney who makes use of mobile devices to practice law either with a virtual law office or in conjunction with a traditional law office.

Web-based Law Practice Management Tools - web-based, software as a service (SaaS) applications used in conjunction with other law office software to conduct administrative and management tasks, such as billing and time management, online.

Paperless Law Office (also termed a "Green Law Office") - a law practice that attempts through the use of technology to reduce or eliminate the amount of paper and law office waste that it generates.

Virtual Reality Law (also termed Virtual Law) - This refers to the development of law in virtual reality worlds, such as the Second Life Bar Association.

Virtual or Online Attorney Collaboration - attorneys using technology to collaborate on legal cases or to network and share resources within the legal profession. Some online collaboration communities include VLOTech, JDSupra, Lexpertise, LawLink. The Lawyer's Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies by Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell is a good resource.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

How Does a VLO Fit In With the Paperless Law Office Tech Trends?

This is an excerpt from a post I made on the VLOTech website explaining how a virtual law office (VLO) fits into the trend of attorneys using technology to create more paperless law offices. As more of VLOTech's clients go live with VLOs across the nation, the examples of virtual law practices will be clear. In the meantime, I'm saying forget about thinking outside the box to understand the virtual law office concept. Just don't get in a box in the first place.

In the past two years, the legal profession has seen the introduction of several web-based law practice management tools. These web-based systems focus primarily on time and billing management for attorneys. Separate systems are devoted entirely to online case management. Many attorneys seeking to have “paperless” law offices are creatively combining different web-based applications with software products, such as Adobe, to create a more digital law practice.

VLOTech strongly supports this movement by the legal profession to use the most current technologies to provide better services to clients and to create more productivity and balance in the lives of legal professionals.

Where do completely virtual law offices fit into this trend?

To understand what VLOTech and it’s attorneys are envisioning and practicing, think one step beyond web-based practice management systems and tools. Look at the way other businesses successfully function in virtual reality worlds and how avatar-based forms of communication are breaking down the barriers of geographic location and economic limitations. Less extreme, think about how many people handle all of their banking and financial matters completely online without ever walking into a brick & mortar bank building to chat confidentially with a financial consultant. A virtual law office capitalizes on the secure web-based technology available to create the infrastructure of an attorney’s law office online. VLOTech provides the technology and each individual attorney or law practice uses it to design the virtual law practice that meets their needs.

By the basic definition, a completely virtual law office (VLO) is a professional law practice that exists online through a secure portal and is accessible to the client and the attorney anywhere the parties may access the Internet. A VLO provides attorneys and clients with the ability to securely discuss matters online, download and upload documents for review and handle other business transactions in a secure digital environment. With a VLO, an attorney’s clients benefit from the convenience and accessibility. The attorney benefits from the flexibility of a virtual law practice, an online client and revenue generating software, and lower overhead associated with setup and maintenance of a nontraditional law office.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

ABA Hosts Virtual Reality Law Conference in Second Life

The ABA’s Conference “Why Virtual Worlds Matter for Lawyers” was held today at the Justice Center in Second Life (SL). It was a fascinating discussion of virtual reality law issues and the future of law in virtual reality worlds.

I attended the conference through my avatar on SL while other attorneys participated through teleconference for CLE credit. Panel members included David Elchoness, Executive Director of the Association of Virtual Worlds, Lauren Gelman, Executive Director of Stanford Law Center for Internet and Society, Steve Mortinger, VP & Associate General Counsel of IBM Systems & Technology Group, Francis Taney, Chair of the Technology Litigation Practice Group, and Benjamin Duranske, attorney and blogger who writes about his experience in SL and about virtual reality law on his blog, Virtually Blind. He has also written the book Virtual Law: Navigating the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds.

As far as practicing law completely through a virtual reality world, the security is not fully there yet. Not to mention that the client base would be limited and difficult given multiple jurisdiction issues. I'll stick with my VLOTech virtual law office. However, there are a number of American attorneys who have opened up virtual reality offices in SL and are helping to write and interpret the laws that will govern this virtual reality world.

Here’s a screenshot of the ABA Conference today (I'm the short-haired blonde sitting down in the middle. It costs Linden dollars for an avatar makeover and new suit, so I stuck with what they gave me.):

If you are not familiar with SL, you might want to check it out. I have limited time for virtual reality worlds right now, but I enjoy keeping up with the development of the technology behind these worlds. I find the environment extremely addictive because of the ability to meet new people from around the world and travel (fly) to different virtual reality developments. There is a Second Life Bar Association that meets every second Saturday in the Justice Center on SL and I may limit my SL interaction to those meetings. It might be a great way to meet some of these pioneering attorneys who are out there creating the legal system that will govern virtual reality worlds.

Why does this matter to the rest of us in the "real" world? Because individuals in the real world are creating viable businesses completely based in SL. Virtual world real estate is bought and sold in Linden dollars but that translates into US dollars in the real world. Companies, such as IBM, and many universities, have SL presences and own real estate in SL. There are IP, business, employment and contract law issues that arise in SL among other matters. Some of these issues were discussed in the conference today and hopefully they will make a transcript available.