Sunday, July 30, 2006

When Client Service a Priority - The Rest Will Follow

This is from a post on Wired GC, a well written blog run by a business and tech savy attorney in the midwest. He's commenting on a British law firm's use of technology to make their clients' lives easier. I will have to agree with his statement. I'm finding that clients also believe that the level of service that comes from retaining legal services through an online law office, while not as personal in the traditional sense perhaps, is more affordable and convenient for certain transactions.

"I can see enlightened law firms offering more of these online options for
clients. They could be priced on a per-use basis (good), offered on flat-fee
basis (better), or even free for clients on a retainer scheme for more complex
work (perhaps best).

If one of the law firms I use sent me a link to an online solution that could deliver quality work quicker at a lower cost, I would fall out of my chair. Why? Because it would mean this firm is thinking about solving my problems and not just about raising revenues. With a bit more focus on the former, the latter may be more likely." [emphasis added]

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Legal Aid of North Carolina - Going Tech...slowly

I just volunteered to do some pro bono work for Legal Aid of N.C. via their Wilmington branch. I filled out the volunteer form online which was an option newly available on their website. When I spoke with the very friendly PAI coordinator about my website and how I was able to offer services at a lower price because of no overhead costs and how that could benefit clients that Legal Aid could take, she said that the attorneys in their office were "traditionalists" and believed it was important to meet with the client face to face.

I had a feeling that was the case. And sure, if I didn't have mountains and mountains of student loan debt and I had a nice savings or trust fund, I might could afford my own physical law office and would enjoy counseling clients face-to-face. However, I still stand behind my virtual law practice as a great alternative way to provide legal services. When it comes to money versus a nice, friendly in person conversation, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most middle to lower income folks (myself included) are thinking about the money and not the friendly face-to-face chatting. If we can get the same legal service and it costs less, then I'm all for that.

I think it is a generational difference. Also, the PAI coordinator mentioned that most of their clients did not have access to the internet and therefore, the website office wouldn't be of use to them. Again, there is so much resistance before the idea is even really introduced to the public. So I mentioned that the public library and law library offer free internet to the public. Plus, personally, I have been in some of the lower income neighborhoods in town and you would be surprised how many of the younger generations living there are decently current in their use of technology. Almost every kid you see has a cellphone and I find it very hard to believe that for many of them someone in their family doesn't have access to a computer and the internet somewhere.

Again, I just think that if it's between no legal assistance because Legal Aid can't help you and affordable legal services, they would prefer the help however it comes. For example, I just finished working with a client this morning. Never met her in person. Only talked to her on the phone. Did my research and work on her matter online and through the cell phone to assist her. Got back with her by phone and that was all she needed. Before she had contacted me for help, she had gone to Legal Aid and they had not been able to take her case due the nature of the matter and their funding restrictions. If I hadn't offered an alternative way to get legal services, she would have had to go back to looking up random attorneys in the phone book and listening to the brush-off from many of them as she had before she was referred to me.

So, I sincerely hope that the more traditional attorneys don't immediately disregard what I am trying to do with the virtual law practice and at least take the time to consider it as an alternative way of practicing the law that can be of service to the citizens of our state and local community.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Defining a Virtual Law Firm

While researching the feasibility of creating a completely virtual law firm, I kept reading articles that viewed a "virtual law firm" in the same way that Dennis Kennedy defines it as "an affiliated group of lawyers connected by technology rather than co-existing in common physical locations." Here is Kennedy's article which I have read several times.

In other words, a group of lawyers working at Biglaw could all be on the same practicing network with other lawyers at Biglaw's ally and they would be considered to have a "virtual law practice." What I want to read about is not how practicing online affects the attorneys personally or makes their firm more productive. I want to read about how communicating and serving clients through the internet and how using technology to make it more affordable can affect the public. I know, with the burgeoning law school loans, I should be thinking more about myself and building a big career. But I get the biggest kick out of helping folks and making the law understandable for the lay person. I steered a lady and future entrepreneur in the right direction today. Didn't get paid a cent for my time and probably won't ever see anything tangible come out of it except maybe a referral. It felt right though and it reminded me of why the legal profession appealed to me in the first place.

Maybe that is why I define a virtual law office practice from a more client-oriented perspective rather than as a lawyer to lawyer tool. I feel like I'm going out on a limb every time I post or comment or share the concept of practicing completely online. But I strongly believe there is something to this. It's going to take patience and staying power, probably until someone "bigger" than me picks up on it and brings it into public awareness.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Starting a Debate

In marketing my virtual law practice, I'm considering throwing a little fuel on the fire. It's well known that the law is a very traditional profession. The basic staples of a traditional law practice are proudly guarded as sacred by the old guard; business rules proven time and time again to work so why change them.

While the N.C. Bar Association has made many wonderful efforts to push the legal profession in N.C. into wider usage of technology, there remains a large percentage of practicing attorneys who have the mind-set that nothing beats face-to-face legal counseling. On the other hand, there are a handful of younger attorneys coming into the profession who grew up attached to their laptops, took the bar exam on their laptop even, and can't imagine work or life without the methods of communication afforded by the Internet and other technological devices. I'm of the latter group which is why I chose to practice online.

I think both the traditional way of practicing law and my way have something different to provide the public. Provided that the rules of ethics are closely followed, I don't think that either way of practicing is going to shame or ruin the reputations of attorneys (which has not been in good shape in the past twenty years anyway). In fact, I think both practices can compliment each other and attend to different markets in the legal field. So, in marketing my business, I am planning on presenting this debate between the traditional method of practicing and the virtual way as an article for the local paper and see if they recognize it as a topic that affects and would interest their readers. It would be great to have a dialogue with local attorneys about the pros and cons of a more technological law practice. Can't wait for the feedback!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Speaking Different Languages

I am always surprised by the disconnect between the language of the written law, the legal professionals and the clients they are meant to serve. In law school, we are trained to analyze and imitate the written legal opinions of some of our nation's best legal minds. But we are not typically trained in how to make the law understandable to the average citizen. I think this creates an endless cycle of people having to rely on attorneys for advice on some of the basic legal rights and protections afforded them, simply because they cannot interpret the language of the law or even know where to look to find the law that relates to their legal matter. While this creates more work for attorneys, I think it is a disservice to the public. But on a positive note, I think it is getting better. For example, is the NC Court system's website and they have a general faqs section and make an effort to at least point people in the right direction. However, I think there continues to be room for improvement in the communication between the law profession and the public we serve. I don't know if the answer is more practical, "real world" law school training or more legal education in public schools. In any event, making legal advice easily comprehensible to clients is something I make a concerted effort to achieve.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Changes to State Tax Provisions Effecting Estate Tax Filing Timelines

Effective July 1, 2006, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted this House Bill 1892, Session Law 2006-18, in an attempt to conform several state tax provisions to federal tax law.

Of importance to estate law practitioners, the time required for a personal representative to file an estate tax return after he or she has been notified by the federal government regarding the amount of estate taxes owed has been changed from two years to six months. They’ve also changed the timeline for filing estate tax returns with the Secretary after a person receives notice regarding a state generation‑skipping transfer tax credit that was allowed. Something to watch out for if you are either preparing estate taxes for a client or advising them in that area. Here are the changes as posted:

SECTION 3. G.S. 105‑32.8 reads as rewritten:

"§ 105‑32.8. Federal determination that changes the amount of tax payable to the State.

If the federal government corrects or otherwise determines the gross estate tax imposed under section 2001 of the Code or the amount of the maximum state death tax credit allowed an estate under section 2011 of the Code, the personal representative must, within two years six months after being notified of the correction or final determination by the federal government, file an estate tax return with the Secretary reflecting the correct amount of tax payable under this Article. If the federal government corrects or otherwise determines the amount of the maximum state generation‑skipping transfer tax credit allowed under section 2604 of the Code, the person who made the transfer must, within two yearssix months after being notified of the correction or final determination by the federal government, file a tax return with the Secretary reflecting the correct amount of tax payable under this Article.

The Secretary must assess and collect any additional tax due as provided in Article 9 of this Chapter and must refund any overpayment of tax as provided in Article 9 of this Chapter. A person who fails to report a federal correction or determination in accordance with this section forfeits the right to any refund due by reason of the determination."