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.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Avoiding the Unauthorized Practice of Law in Other Jurisdictions When Practicing Law Online

Practicing law from a web-based virtual law office brings the risk of unwittingly establishing an attorney/client relationship regarding a legal matter that the virtual attorney is not licensed to handle. The unauthorized practice of law in other jurisdictions can be avoided by following some simple practice methods.

First, the virtual law practitioner has the responsibility to provide clear notice throughout the VLO website that he or she is only licensed to practice law in the states in which the attorney holds an active bar license. This information should show up at every turn - from the terms and conditions for the website to the registration and clickwrap agreement allowing access to the online client's homepage.

Second, the virtual law office website should contain contact information and the name of the attorney running the VLO. For some state bar associations, such as North Carolina, the requirement extends to providing a physical mailing address for the prospective client. This information should be located in a section that is easily found by the online client, such as an "About Us" section or at the start of the website's disclaimer. By providing adequate notice throughout the VLO, the attorney should not be found to be soliciting clients from a state where he or she is not able to practice law.

In addition, a well-designed VLO should contain a jurisdiction check for the benefit of the client and the attorney. This safe-guard was built into the VLOTech software for this purpose.

When the client registers on the attorney's VLO website, a simple check for the zip code notifies the attorney that the client is a resident outside his or her jurisdiction. A note would appear to the client which states that the attorney may only be retained to answer legal questions and handle legal work related to the laws of the state for which the attorney has an active law license. The jurisdiction check should not prevent the client from continuing with the registration process, but serves the purpose of providing more than adequate notice of the attorney’s jurisdiction. Through this process, the attorney is provided with a red flag on the backend of the law office to let him or her know that the client resides in a different state and may not have a legal matter that the attorney is permitted to handle.

With the combination of adequate contact information and notice to any prospective clients regarding jurisdictional limitations, the virtual practitioner should be able to safely avoid crossing the line into unauthorized practice of law.

Screenshots of VLOTech Client Side

I posted the manual for the client side of the VLOTech software on the VLOTech blog here. I am excited to share the new format with my own online clients. The software has everything that I have been using to practice law online for the past couple years at my own virtual law practice, but it also has some additional features that I think will make my virtual practice run smoother for me and my clients.

One of the great things about the software-as-a-service model is that the software doesn't require installs for every different version or patch. VLOTech can get input from the attorneys using the product to decide what aspects of the technology to develop next. Updates to the software are then just added to the existing clients' systems. It's development guided by the users which just makes good sense.

We have a test site up and running for our first group of innovative attorneys to try out before they go live with their virtual law practices. The goal is to get an online demo on the VLOTech blog so that it's available for everyone. For now, the focus is on supporting our first e-laywering pioneers. We now have attorneys from 21 different states who have expressed an interest in opening a web-based virtual law practice with VLOTech. There's clearly something going on here.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Accepting Online Payments in a Virtual Law Office

Accepting credit card payments from clients has come up several times recently on the ABA's Solosez listserv. Some list members were questioning whether it was ethical to accept client funds online if the funds were meant to be held as a retainer. By most state bar regulations, a retainer should be held only in the attorney's trust account.

How should an attorney operating a completely virtual law office handle accepting online payments from clients?

To start, if a virtual law practice accepts credit card payments from clients, then the attorney must make sure that the practice is Payment Card Industry Data Security (PCI DSS) compliant. PCI compliance must occur whenever any business stores, transfers or collects credit card information from clients. Failure to comply with these rules, set by the credit card industry, may result in a business no longer being allowed to take credit card purchases, in addition to multiple fines and penalties.

It is unlikely that a virtual law practice would handle the number of transactions that require an audit by the PCI DSS Qualified Security Assessors. However, the standards in this area are constantly being changed. The responsibility falls to the VLO attorney to keep any online purchases of legal services by credit card compliant with the most current rules and regulations.

It should go without saying that a VLO must also be set up to comply with rules set forth in that attorney's state bar trust account guidelines or other bar association regulations. Because many attorneys operating a VLO will choose to use the fixed fee method of billing in which the client is provided and agrees to pay a fixed fee before the completed services are delivered in full, the VLO attorney may not require a separate retainer. If a retainer is required as part of the initial price quote and must be completed before the VLO attorney proceeds, then those funds should most likely be placed in the VLO’s trust account and kept separate from the VLO operating account per the rules of most state bar associations.

As I mentioned above, one gray area is the use of Paypal or other credit card processing service to hold retainer fees. The issue is whether the retainer may be run through the credit card processing company even if that company routes the funds to the attorney’s trust account rather than operating account. Because the funds would first be transmitted to the attorney’s online account at the credit card processing company and then routed to the trust account, this may be in violation of the online attorney's state bar trust account rules because for a short period of time the funds are held by the credit card processing company.

There are a variety of ways that the online attorney might choose to set up the payment function of the VLO and his or her compliance with trust account rules would depend on that particular setup. With the use of the VLO billing features and invoicing process, it may be not be desirable for the attorney to request a traditional retainer fee from the online client or if necessary, the VLO attorney could request to receive the retainer through snail mail for direct deposit into the attorney’s trust account. In which case, the question of the trust account being attached to the credit card processing company would not exist.

While all of this may sound hyper-technical because the funds would end up in the attorney’s trust account as required, if PayPal or the credit card processing company in question was not one of the financial institutions approved by the attorney's state bar for the purpose of maintaining trust accounts, then the transaction might be in violation of their bar’s trust accounting rules. This is a question that the individual state bars may have to address as more attorneys provide legal services through virtual law practices.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Setting Up a Virtual Law Practice

I asked my readers in a recent post to let me know what their top questions were regarding virtual law practice.

One reader writes:

"Is there a software solution that can be installed out of the box that would work well for a virtual practice, or does someone have to find someone with programming expertise to set up the website? What software do you use for your virtual practice?"

Since I don't know of any "out of the box" products that can create a completely virtual law office, I thought I would explain exactly what a virtual law office is and how it operates with the VLOTech, Web 2.0 application which is what I use to operate Kimbro Legal Services.

The definition of virtual practice has evolved with the technology we have available to us and will continue to do so. VLOTech clients either have a law office website in place or VLOTech refers them to Grant Griffiths at whose services may set up a virtual law office website with blog functionality. The VLOTech application is then integrated into the attorney's vlo website. Unlike packaged software that you have to install on your PC, VLOTech is a hosted system. Read up on Web 2.0 apps or SaaS for more details. The VLOTech website also has more information about the product and faqs.

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 and 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.

It is important to distinguish a professional VLO from the many online websites selling legal documents and from rented “virtual,” physical offices. A VLO provides direct and personal communication between an attorney and a client rather than “form generated,” unbundled legal documents for sale and purchase by the public. Communication by email does not constitute a virtual law practice even if sent through a law firm’s website. Email is limited as a method of transacting business and is typically unencrypted, and therefore, not a secure method of handling sensitive attorney/client data.

Physical office space rented out to an attorney to meeting with clients when scheduled for a monthly fee is also often referred to as a “virtual” law office. While this arrangement allows the attorney to work from a home office and meet with clients in a shared office space, the program does not use technology to operate the functions of a law office or provide an online interface to obtain and work with clients.

Previous hesitation by legal professionals regarding “elawyering” or the practice of law online centered around technology that was limited in both protecting the security of sensitive attorney/client data and in allowing for adequate communication between the attorney and his or her client. As Web 2.0 and web-based applications continue to evolve, the definition of a virtual law practice will need to adapt at the same pace. While the software applications & technology used to create a VLO may update continuously, the public demand for online access to legal services will sustain the VLO method of practicing law. However, it will remain the responsibility of the individual virtual law practitioner to stay current with the security concerns related to the technology used for the VLO and to maintain strong ethics and professional conduct when practicing law online.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

While I don't like general characterizations of anyone, this post by Jordan Furlog over at Law21 had me smiling as he writes tips for how Gen-Y lawyers can adjust to working with Boomers and Gen-Xers. I found it insightful on most accounts, especially regarding multitasking with different technologies.

Furlong writes, "Boomers don’t understand multitasking. Well, they do, but in the sense of “I’m carrying 75 files at one time,” rather than “I’m drafting a top-notch memo while IM’ing a friend and listening to a podcast.” Boomers live in a linear and sequential world, while you [Gen-Y] were thinking outside the box before it became a cliché."

Oddly enough, when it comes to introducing a virtual practice to other attorneys, I've had both Boomer and Gen-Xers who see the benefits of going online. In fact, I have a couple attorneys who are looking to "retire" into running their vlos in the next few years. At the same time, I know several Gen-Xers who have mastered email and that's as far as it goes.

My point is that it does take an entrepreneurial spirit and certain tech savvy to start up a virtual law practice - regardless of your generation label. I wonder if virtual attorneys of all generations wouldn't have more in common with each other than their traditional law office counterparts?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Free Blogs at Solo Practice University

Today Solo Practice University announced they will offer free blogs to Solo Practice University community members.

Solo Practice University, in development, is "a web-based educational community and networking forum for solo lawyers and entrepreneurial law students." Susan Cartier Liebel is the creator behind this web-based educational venture. The addition of free blogs to Solo Practice University community members will allow them to practice and hone their blogging skills in a constructive environment. It will be a great way to teach members how blogging and other technologies may be used to market their law practices and create valuable networks with other professionals.

This is the perfect combination! I'm so excited to see how this venture will empower solo practitioners and newly practicing lawyers. Plus, it's a web-based application and I am a big fan of using technology to pool collective resources for educational purposes. More information on Solo Practice University may be found here. Or sign up for email notification.

Notice & Understanding: Setting the Scope of Representation for Online Clients

While each state's bar has different rules governing their attorneys, I suspect that many of the rules of professional conduct and ethics opinions are similar. The NC State Bar was one of the first to address virtual law practice. On January 20, 2006, the NC State Bar adopted the 2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 10 (Ethics Opinion 10) providing advice regarding virtual law practice and online unbundled legal services.

The comments in the opinion focus more on email communication and do not envision a web-based application that provides for detailed attorney/client interaction. However, it is still nice to have a standard opinion to work with.

The nature of unbundled legal services and the requirement that prospective clients understand the scope and nature of the legal representation being offered online was one of the topics addressed by the Ethics Opinion 10. The Bar stated that the virtual attorney must be careful to comply with Rule 1.2(c) of the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct. This rule states “[a] lawyer may limit the scope of representation if the limitation is reasonable under the circumstances.”

Accordingly, the attorney must continue to provide competent and thorough representation to the client regardless of the limited nature of the legal services being conducted. Rule 1.2(c) allows for the limited legal services to be provided to the public as long as the attorney complies with Rule 1.1 regarding competence of legal services provided.

A well-designed VLO provides notice to prospective clients as well as assurances that these notices have been read and accepted by the client. (See my Clickwrap Agreement post) Additionally, the scope of representation may be again communicated through a secure online message from attorney to the client and a traditional limited scope of representation agreement may be uploaded for the client to sign and return to the attorney, either by scanning and uploading to the VLO or by traditional mail or fax methods.

Before offering unbundled legal services, the virtual attorney has the responsibility to explain exactly what services will be provided at what cost to the client. A well-designed VLO operates with this specific process as the foundation for the transactions by requiring multiple steps where the client must read and acknowledge the terms and/or provide information to the attorney which lets the attorney know that the client has moved forward with accepting the scope of representation.

With each VLO, an attorney has the ability to tailor his or her virtual practice to encompass a variety of limited legal services, including the combination of using the VLO in conjunction with a full-service law office. Because each practice will differ in the areas of law practiced by the attorney(s) and by the chosen design and use of the VLOTech application, the responsibility to ensure compliance with Ethics Opinion 10 and Rule 1.2(c) of the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct will remain with the individual practitioner or law firm.

Here are a couple examples: An attorney whose practice centers on litigation may use a VLO to generate additional client revenue on the side by answering basic traffic ticket questions while maintaining a full-service litigation practice. The same attorney might use the VLOTech application to provide homepages to existing clients that he or she meets with in person and allow those clients to pay bills online, communicate in a more secure method than through email and basically to use the VLO as an amenity to the full-service firm.

As a different example, another attorney may decide to enter retirement from a full-service law firm by creating a VLO that handles only transactional legal services, such as drafting estate planning, contracts or setting up business entities for clients who do not want or need to meet with the attorney in-person. The VLO allows this attorney to work remotely or from home allowing him or her to ease into retirement or create a completely new online law practice that allows for greater work/life balance.

There are a variety of different situations where a VLO may be used to provide unbundled legal services and with each it is possible to provide quality legal services and comply with Rules 1.2(c) and 1.1 of the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct.

Similar to a traditional law office, a virtual law attorney must use his or her judgment on a case by case basis when deciding whether he or she may competently and ethically handle a particular matter. If the client’s needs would be better suited if handled by a full-service attorney and the virtual law attorney does not provide this services, then it is his or her responsibility to refer the client out. This is no different from the responsibility of every attorney – whether practicing virtually or with a traditional, brick and mortar law office.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

What Are Your Top Five Questions About Virtual Practice?

I'm writing a CLE manuscript for my state bar regarding Virtual Law Practice. The working title is Virtual Law Practice: Technology and Ethics Considerations. The writing is going well, but I want to make sure I have covered all my bases.

What are your top five questions about virtual law practice?

They can be questions about technology, practice management, ecommerce, ediscovery, security, SaaS, ethics, business, etc. So far, I'm feeling pretty confident that I've touched on most of the hot topics. Surprise me and maybe I'll blog with the answers.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Virtual Law Office Voted Family Favorite

I need to brag for a minute. I am proud to announce that for the second year in a row my virtual law practice was voted the Family Favorite by the readers of the Wilmington Parent Magazine. The publication is a local parenting magazine that covers several major counties across the southeastern coast of North Carolina.

Most of my estate planning clients have young families and many of my small business clients are parents, including a number of work-at-home mothers. Of any career-related accolades, this one makes me the proudest because it means that my clients think enough of my legal services to take the time to vote for me and send in the survey to the publication - without my asking, I might add. The fixed fees and the convenience of working with an attorney online are the biggest selling points for my virtual practice based on client feedback. Here's looking forward to another strong year with my virtual practice!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Ethics Question for the Virtual Attorney

Practicing online I often receive this question as an ethics challenge to my virtual practice: How can you be sure that the person you are communicating with online is really person you are drafting the documents for?

Because I handle estate planning, attorneys who operate more traditional practices express specific concern about the power of attorney and the broad authority that it provides to the attorney-in-fact. What if the person I am drafting the document for is really someone else who plans to use the power of attorney for nefarious purposes?

While I will conceed that the Internet facilitates the potential for individuals to commit fraud regarding their true identities, I do not believe it is my responsibility as an attorney to ensure that the final use of the legal documents I have created never fall into the wrong hands. Superwoman, I am not. I can draft legal documents to the best of my abilities with the information the client provides to me, and after that, I cannot control my client's actions or the actions of their families in enforcing or following through with the dictates of these documents. To claim that I could control this or should be reponsible for a client's conduct would be ridiculous.

I provide my clients with fixed fees through my VLO and the majority of my business comes from packages containing several different estate planning documents. My clients are required to accept two clickwrap agreements and a price quote for services which tells them upfront both the nature of unbundled online legal services and the exact legal fees which they will owe me for my services.

Once I complete the documents, it is my client's reponsibility to take them to a notary public in North Carolina to have them properly executed. I provide my clients with detailed instructions to provide the notary public and they know that they may contact me if they run into any questions during this process. It is the notary public's responsibility to check the driver's license of the individuals signing these documents to ensure that they are who they say they are. Additionally, most of the estate planning documents require two witnesses to also be present for the execution.

How do I know my online clients are who they say they are if I never meet them face to face?

Do most attorneys (or their paralegals) in a brick and mortar law office check the driver's license and photo id of every client for whom they provide legal services? Nope. In fact, I recall hearing of a case at one of the firms I worked for before going solo where an attorney had filed an lawsuit on behalf of the client only to find out during discovery that the client had multiple identities in several states and was not who he claimed to be. Had that attorney met with the false client face to face in the brick & mortar law office? Yes, several times. Did that prevent the client from pulling the wool over the eyes of the law firm he retained? Nope.

Professional standards of conduct require that I communicate with reasonable diligence and promptness when dealing with clients. Operating a virtual law practice does not mean that I mass generate legal forms in an impersonal manner. I communicate individually with each of my clients. I ask the questions that I need to know to handle their legal matters. Sometimes they upload documents for me to review and we often work on mulitple drafts. Rarely do I need to call a client on the phone discuss something in person, but if it's necessary to provide the best legal services for them, then I do it.

Many of us reconnect online with family and friends through Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. We create strong online business connections through networking websites, such as LinkedIn. Likewise, the virtual law practitioner uses the web-based technology to build personal and ongoing professional relationships with clients.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Clickwrap Agreements in a Virtual Law Practice

I've been doing more blogging for the VLOTech website. A lot of my material is coming from the CLE manuscript that I'm drafting for a presentation this summer on security/ethics issues with virtual law practices. The legality and enforceability of clickwrap agreements in a vlo is a question I've gotten from other attorneys.

In my virtual practice, I don't soley rely on the clickwrap agreement that my clients are required to accept before registering for their own homepage. I more specifically define the scope of legal representation (or non-representation as the case may be) with each individual client that registers. That is handled on each client's secure homepage and depends on the legal work they are seeking. As more attorneys go online with their law practices, the use of the clickwrap agreement will probably be standard on the vlo, but I suspect each individual solo or small firm practitioner will want to use an additional retainer agreement or other contracting method with clients after registration.

Here's my post from the VLOTech website on this subject:

Solo and small firm practitioners operating a VLO require that their online clients accept a clickwrap agreement before registering for a homepage on the virtual law office. This agreement contains the terms and conditions of the attorney’s representation to the client, explains the nature of unbundled legal services, defines the scope of representation and may contain other provisions tailored to the attorney’s virtual law practice.

While retainer fees, payment arrangements and further definition of the scope of legal representation is communicated with the client through the client’s secure homepage on a case by case basis, the standard clickwrap agreement for the VLO serves as the legal contract between the attorney and his or her online client. Some attorneys may chose to require that their clients download and sign a separate written agreement following registration similar to a traditional retainer agreement. The business method depends on the individual virtual law practice. However, an online agreement during client registration with the terms and conditions for use of the VLO is standard.

The ABA Committee on Cyberspace Law during a panel discussion at the ABA’s Annual Meeting last year provided a practical reminder of the steps to follow when creating an online agreement. Blogger, Jason Haislmaier, in his blog ThinkingOpen, provides a great blog post regarding the drafting of enforceable online agreements and the Cyberspace Law Committee’s recommendations.

Haislmaier writes, “In particular, the panel indicated that the working group had identified four “bottom line” steps for forming legally binding online agreements:

1. The user must have adequate notice that the proposed terms exist;

2. The user must have a meaningful opportunity to review the terms;

3. The user must have adequate notice that taking a specified, optional action manifests assent to the terms; and

4. The user must, in fact, take that action.

Among these four steps, adequate notice of the existence of the proposed terms is among the most important.”

VLOTech attorneys draft their own terms and conditions for use with their virtual law offices. The ABA Cyberspace Law website has a searchable archive for members which contains many good resources to assist attorneys in researching this topic and drafting their VLO online agreements.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Does Focusing on "the Business" Lead to a Decline in Professionalism?

Two recent events have led me to ponder this ongoing debate of whether focusing on the business aspects of running a law practice in some way threatens the legal profession. Perhaps it's because my state tends to be more conservative because I don't read too much about this online. Some of it stems from more traditional attorneys feeling threatened by the use of technology to practice law, but I acknowledge that there are other issues at work here.

I attended a CLE sponsored by my state bar association where the topic of maintaining professionalism was discussed. The speaker noted with enthusiasm that we attorneys needed to remember that "this is not a business; it is a profession!"

Well, I think it's both and it serves our clients as well as ourselves for attorneys to treat the legal profession as a business, a business that maintains high customer service standards.

I respectfully understand the point that this gentleman CLE presenter was emphasizing. But as a solo virtual law practitioner, I sure wish the bar would sponsor a few more CLEs geared towards the business aspects of running a law practice. After all, this is not exactly something attorneys are taught in law school and it is critical to our success.

Practicing law from a virtual law office comes with the fun challenge of explaining to other attorneys why you have chosen to offer legal services online. A large part of chosing to run a virtual law office has to do with the fact that it allows me to run a healthy business as a professional. Surprisingly, the public, my clients, do not have any problem "getting it." My clients see what I see: convenience, low overhead at a time when the economy is floundering, flexibility to provide my clients with services when it's convenient for them, efficient and secure form of communication, etc.

Also this past week, I attended a practicum for a bright group of MBA students and had the chance to read through the team's business plan and critique it as business owner. Just reviewing and critically thinking about their business plan made me want to run home and rewrite and clarify my own business plan for my virtual law practice. I think it benefits our clients as well as our own law practices when we take the time to remind ourselves, through business plans or conversations with legal practice consultants, what our goals are in managing our law practices.

So that's my fun project for this weekend: Updating my business plan so that I stay focused on the practical as well as professional aspects of running my virtual law practice.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Work/Life Balance Reform and the Virtual Law Office

The following is a post I wrote for MsJD about how a virtual law practice could be used as a way to provide attorneys with more flexible work/life balance. The essay was in response to an essay contest hosted by The Project for Attorney Retention and MsJD.

A small part of the work/life balance reform in the legal profession is taking place quietly through the use of secure, web-based technology. Virtual law offices provide an alternative method of practicing law that permit flexible work hours and can be used to create a better work/life balance for legal professionals. I chose this alternative and for the past two and a half years I have practiced law from home with a completely virtual law office powered by Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC (VLOTech).

In the interest of full disclosure, VLOTech is a company that my husband and I founded based on the positive response we received from other legal professionals nationwide to the concept of a completely virtual law office and the flexibility it offers. The technology is a secure, web-based, software as a service (SaaS) hosted program that generates online client development and permits an attorney to practice law anywhere he or she may access the Internet. The technology assists legal professionals so that they may build a better work/life balance for themselves by modifying their practice to fit personal and family needs.

Finding a better work/life balance was my motivation to start a completely virtual law practice. I chose to practice law from home so that I could spend my days caring for my young child but still continue to build my career as an attorney. To provide a brief description of my virtual office, my client files, data, billing, invoices, accounts receivable, other accounting and administrative tools, calendars and data management tools are located in the backend of the virtual office online. I have a central point in the virtual law office where all of my cases are organized and it shows me the status and priority for better time management.

On my client’s side, they have access to their own homepages through my virtual law office where they may view all of our online communications, pay me online, download and upload documents, and update client data, among other features. I have 24 hour policy of responding to my clients online. My clients are located across the state, most of them I’ve never met or spoken with in person. My flexible work hours include the time during my child’s nap, in the early morning and evenings or whenever else it is convenient for me and my clients to get work completed. My clients appreciate that I am available to them during non-business hours because that is often more convenient for them as well.

Through the use of VLOTech, blogs and other web-based technologies, the legal professional today may create alternative working arrangements that can be adjusted and refined as circumstances in his or her personal life require. I have used these to fashion a work/life balance that meets my current needs as a parent, a wife, a daughter and an attorney. I have found wonderful mentors online through law blogs, the ABA’s Solosez and my state bar’s practice group listservs. In five years from now, my work and family life needs will be different, but an effective use of web-based technology will allow me to adjust the hours which I devote to my law practice and return to a more traditional attorney work schedule.

Many baby boomer law partners will realize the importance of work/family life balance as they begin to care for their aging and elderly parents. At some point in our lives, most of us will be contributing to the care of a family member, either financially or with our time and either by chose or imposition. Legal professionals of both sexes are not immune to this fact of life. Recognizing this, rather than fighting against it, would benefit the legal profession with both higher retention rates among young attorneys and with peers who were less vulnerable to depression and alcohol abuse.

Other attorneys who are adopting these technologies in their law practices have seen the potential for the virtual law office concept to reform the work/life balance in the legal profession. Its usefulness is not limited to young female attorneys who want to take the time out to raise a family and continue to have a career. The technology could be used by more experienced attorneys who need to take a couple months or a year off from a firm to care for an elderly parent or ill spouse. Apply the same concept to legal assistants and paralegals who could use the technology from their homes or other remote location in conjunction with a traditional law office and continue to be productive members to their employers while managing law office administrative tasks, client intake, accounting and other functions found in the virtual law office software. The web-based technology permits the attorney to control his or her law practice in a more flexible manner that maintains productivity and makes the management of clients and a law office more efficient.

VLOTech and other web based, software as a service technologies that are available today should be put to work to help the legal profession reform the work/life balance. If the level of productivity remains high, quality legal work is produced and client development is strong, then there should be no reason why virtual law office technology should not be considered to implement a better work/life balance and improve attorney retention.

The crux of the divide between baby boomer attorneys and fresh law school graduates is not about “putting in the time.” It’s about letting someone else other than your law firm control how you allocate your time and prioritize the people in your life. Technology is quietly allowing legal professionals to arrange their lives and their careers so that at different times in their lives they may adjust to meet a careful balance that changes a little for each of us, each year of our lives. I’m excited to be a part of this quiet reform and I hope that it continues to spread and provide more unique law practice alternatives for the members of our profession.

New Website/Blog Complete

The new VLOTech website designed by G2WebMedia is online. Regular updates on the Company and VLOTech software and services will be provided to interested clients on the new website rather than by email. I will continue to blog here about my own experience with a virtual law practice and contribute to the VLOTech blog regarding the VLOTech software and services.

Monday, March 17, 2008

March Update on VLOTech and my Virtual Law Practice

Sheryl Sisk Schelin, author of The Inspired Solo, invited me to write a guest post for her blog this week. Thank you to Sheryl for the opportunity to share my virtual practice with her readers!

In other news, VLOTech is having its website professionally designed by G2 Web Media which is owned by Grant Griffiths of Home Office Lawyer fame. The website/blog should be up and running by the end of the month. The VLOTech company website will be a blog so that company updates and software progress can be posted quickly and archived in one spot. We're also planning on having a faqs section which will address head-on the questions that we predict prospective clients and the public may have about SaaS, web-based applications and vlos in general.

The Greater Wilmington Business Journal recently published an article about VLOTech and how the company is attracting attention across the nation from attorneys who are interested in setting up Virtual Law Offices.

I've been asked to teach a CLE session at the GP/Solo/Small Firm CLE for the NC Bar Association this summer. My working title is "Virtual Law Practice: Technology and Ethics Considerations". I'm looking forward to the opportunity to share my experience practicing law online and hopefully encourage more solo and small firm practitioners to look into the different technology options available that can enable them to create vlos or to take their practices remote.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Book Review – The Electronic Evidence and Discovery Handbook by Sharon D. Nelson, Bruce A. Olson and John W. Simek

I was fortunate to win the above titled book as a prize during the Macs Practice Law Week hosted by The Inspired Solo. The authors, Sharon D. Nelson, Bruce A. Olson and John W. Simek, mention in the introduction to the book that when they predicted that all lawyers would need to learn about electronic discovery (ED) in the near future, they were meet with the same remarks from attorneys that I hear about virtual law practices – it’s just a trend and will not have an impact on the way that I practice law.

Until I read through this book, I don’t think I realized either the extent to which issues surrounding ED have crept into every law practice – even solos and small firms. It has gotten me thinking about the ways that I need to counsel my clients, not just my small business clients, but also my family law and estate administration clients. Clients need to be educated about their own electronic activities and how those actions could show up again as electronic evidence in their legal cases.

As the authors make clear in The Electronic Evidence and Discovery Handbook, messages written in an email will hang around longer and have more copies than a contract written on paper and stuck in a file somewhere. Not only is this good evidence, but in some cases, it may be easier to get a hold of.

In this day and age, I find it difficult to imagine that anyone could assume that just because they are communicating by email or text message, that this is somehow not a “real” transfer of information. There have been many articles along these lines in the past few years, especially regarding the inappropriate use of email or the slack way in which even professionals will write messages to colleagues and clients using slang or unprofessional language.

This trend seems to be changing, or at least people are becoming better at determining what e-conduct is appropriate for which e-format. You can disclose TMI or TFS comments on your personal D&D listserv, but BTW you should write in complete sentences when emailing opposing counsel from your law office.

In my virtual law practice, I try to avoid using email because it is unencrypted and therefore, not a secure way to communicating with clients. My VLO provides a secure way to communicate with my clients and I use this as a way to lock down the terms of our attorney/client relationship and the scope of legal services I am providing. As with a traditional retainer agreement, I count on the fact that in the event that I ever need to defend my actions, I will be able to use my e-correspondence with the client as electronic evidence.

The Electronic Evidence and Discovery Handbook is a fascinating book on a topic that affects all attorneys, even solos and small firm practitioners. With useful forms, checklists and guidelines on the included CD, I’d recommend it as a useful addition to any law office library – virtual law offices all the more.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

SaaS and the Virtual Law Office

There has been an interesting dicussion on the ABA's SOLOSEZ listserv lately about web-based legal software. Some of it has been a tad hostile with a couple members completely opposed to web-based software and others hailing it as the future of legal software. There have been two fairly recent web-based legal software releases: Rocket Matters and TrialManager. Ken Obel of Nextpoint wrote a guest post on The Inspired Solo this week addressing some of the objections to SaaS. I'm guessing it's the release of these applications that have started the discussions about SaaS, how it works, and all the pros and cons of a web-based application.

I'll have to take the middle road on this discussion. I believe SaaS can be a cost-effective tool that attorneys can use to manage their legal cases (TrialManager) and even operate their law practices online (VLOTech). However, I'm not sure that SaaS is the end-all-be-all for the management of every solo or small firm practice. It doesn't have to be the sole legal software product used by an attorney. It can be effective as a complementary software as well. The web-based product(s) an attorney choses depends on what he or she needs for the individual law practice and on his or her comfort level with SaaS and the company providing the service.

My advice: Before you chose to go with a web-based application, check into the company that will be providing the service and handling your valuable data. If they won't be upfront about all the "what if" situations and if they don't have policies in place to protect their customers, then I wouldn't go with them.

My mind is on this a lot lately because I've been working with Ben Norman, co-founder of VLOTech, to create the content for the company's website which is being professionally re-done. We are drafting a Faqs page that goes into all of the questions we think the customers might have about the Virtual Law Office Technology, SaaS and web-based applications in general. VLOTech really wants the customers to be educated on the topic and to feel like the company is being upfront from the beginning. I think that's the best approach to take with a web-based legal software application because attorneys are in general very skeptical of new products. It will be interesting to get feedback and see if I'm right about this.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Virtual Competition

Roger Glovsky of The Virtual Lawyer sees collaboration as a way for solos and small firm practitioners to compete in a market that gets more competitive every day. He also writes here about how the Internet and technology could be used to level the playing field a bit more:

"The problem for the solo practitioner and small firm is that it will get increasingly difficult to compete. Although the Internet is heralded for leveling the playing field, the rules of the game have changed. The new game is about having real-time, virtual, and personalized access, to people, information and tools that enhance productivity, improve results, and facilitate the practice of law. How will the solos and small firms develop these new resources?"

Virtual Law Offices offer an excellent way for a solo or small firm practitioner to compete with a larger, chain firm. I'm a solo. Do I have the funds to pop up a branch office of my solo in every major city in my state, plant associates and staff in each one and then ad a nice fat advertising budget on top of that to get the clients rolling in?

Of course not. Competition like this hits hard in a small city like mine where the traditional attorneys here are used to competing with other solos or small firms. Then a branch comes in with marketing strategies and huge budgets and it really does change the game.

IMHO, Virtual Law Offices might be one way for solos and small firms to expand their client base to the entire state without having to spend much more than $150-300 a month in cost for the web-based service/vlo website. If you can attract clients from across the state, then the ROI is going to be there and last.

I don't think a VLO is the answer for every solo or small firm. I think for some attorneys like me who want the flexible work/life balance, a completely VLO might be the answer. For others, I think it could be used as a tool to compete with the larger firms who have the resources to pull in more clients. And it's possible that a large firm could do the same thing and incorporate a VLO into their existing law office website and then pour money into online advertising of the VLO on search engines and attorney referral sites. I would be interested to hear what others think about using VLOs as a way for solos to compete with larger firms.

Monday, February 18, 2008

MPL Week - Meet MacVirtual

It's Macs Practice Law Week over at The Inspired Solo and TechnoEsq. They have invited attorneys practicing law with Macs to share their experiences. I'm a bit of a newbie with my Mac, but I'm so enthusiastic about how it is working for my virtual law practice that I thought I'd chime in.

I waited until MacWorld was over this year before purchasing my first Mac. I went live with my virtual law practice as a solo over two years ago and have been using an older PC from my law school days. I had loved using Macs in college but after law school had been using whatever PC was available wherever I happened to be working.

This year I decided to switch back to Mac. My virtual law office is a web application rather than software so it doesn’t have to be PC or Mac compatible, it can run on both. I went with the Mac Notebook. The Mac Air, although very cool, was a bit too pricey for me as a young solo…this year. I’ll stay optimistic about the future.

The nature of a completely virtual law office is that I practice wherever I can securely access the Internet. I live by the beach and the Cape Fear River. Sometimes I like to be outside and sometimes I like to take breaks and walk. My old laptop from law school weighs a ton and the battery runs out too fast. It was time for a change.

Since I have been researching the switch back to a MAC and discussing the vlo technology with other attorneys, I’ve found there is a significant group of Mac attorneys who are eager for law office technology that is compatible with the MAC. I’m hoping to sway more Mac-using attorneys over to the benefits of a MacVirtual practice or at least using it as a client and revenue generating product to build their practices.

My top reasons why the Mac Notebook works great for my virtual practice:

1. Using File Vault to encrypt my home directory so my data is protected even
if my laptop is stolen.

2. Time Machine automatically backs up the system.

3. The Mac goes to sleep better and rarely needs to be rebooted.

4. I can get over five hours of battery time out of it. Great for someone like
me who can’t sit still in one place for very long but wants to stay online.

5. Doesn’t give me a backache lugging it around.

6. Aesthetically pleasing design.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Legal Directories and a Virtual Law Office - What's Your Address?

This week I'm considering giving online legal directories another chance. As more and more attorneys are dropping out of Martindale Hubbell, I recently turned to Findlaw's online directory options.

I formerly had a listing with and was unhappy with the unprofessional splash page that they insisted on setting up for me. Why they would not link directly to my vlo, I am not sure. Because my vlo is a secure web application and clients can come to me directly through the online office, I did not have a need for's unsecure "email me" contact form that I was paying for each month. The one benefit was that the listing boosted my ranking in google which initially may have been worth the pricey fee. On to other options as I continue to grow my vlo and learn more law management practice tips along the way.

A basic Findlaw listing that links to my vlo would be great. Except they are not too familiar with a vlo and virtual law is not a separate category of law practice. Even though I work with clients online throughout the entire state, I would have to purchase a listing in each individual cities in the state. The expense here is mindboggling.

What is my address?'s a website address. The online directories have trouble categorizing you outside of the traditional law office setup. As more solos and law firms go online with Virtual Law Office Technology (VLOTech) and use a vlo to practice law, the usual law directory companies will have to come up with a different pricing structure that provides services that fit with a vlo's marketing needs.

One option might be to leave out the physical address requirement and let the vlo link to their vlo for the same price and if they want to add both a physical and a vlo link, then charge for both. I'm not an expert on how online directories operate. The customer reps at Findlaw have been efficient at giving me the information I need as far as pricing and services. However, I think if these companies want to stay on the cutting edge of legal technology trends they should start considering how their services can be useful and affordable for a virtual law practice.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

In a Slowing Economy - Benefits of A Virtual Law Practice

Kevin O'Keefe over at Real Lawyers Have Blogs summarized Dennis Kennedy's suggestions for how attorneys can cut costs in the slowing economy.

At the top of the list was find technology that cuts costs for your law practice. Maybe it should also read: cut out the legal software that was supposed to save you time. Instead, find a more efficient way to accomplish the same law practice management and client development tasks by looking at technologies that other businesses besides attorneys are using to cut costs and raise client revenue.

Friday, January 25, 2008

WSJ Mentions Virtual Offices - Software as a Service to Replace Software

Software as a Service (SaaS) is starting to replace software that you install on your PC. It's simpler to use and more cost effective for the user because they do not individually have to worry about keeping up to date on security or backing up their data. The company that provides the SaaS does this for the user.

Marc Benioff, CEO of, Inc., a company that makes online services that aid salespeople in keeping track ot their customers, told WSJ reporters in the Business Technology section of Tuesday's paper that "I think the big news is that there will be no office. The office is becoming more virtual every day, and the technology that's making that happen is the huge wave of mobility...."

Software as a Service is what my virtual practice runs on. Virtual Law Office Technology is SaaS. I don't have to be a computer whiz or keep current on every security patch that is needed for software on my PC. Instead I can spend that time building my practice. I was thrilled to read this article in the WSJ about the "future built on platforms." Lexis and Westlaw, take note.

Consider the time and money an attorney could save using SaaS to run a virtual practice rather than having to keep up on security updates, hardware for backups and storage of critical data.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Virtual Law Practice Heralded as the Future of Solos and Small Practices

The response to my guest post on Susan Cartier Liebel's blog Build a Solo Practice, LLC has been overwhelming. In the past three days Virtual Law Office Technology has been swamped with emails and a few phone calls from other solos interested in using the release version of the web application. I've really been enjoying hearing from these other attorneys with solo or small practices and learning how they run their businesses and how they would like to see this technology work for them.

Also heralding virtual law practice as the future of solos and small firms, Jordan Furlong, Editor-in-Chief of National magazine at the Canadian Bar Association, writes here on his blog Law21, "Small, flexible, accessible, affordable, and turn-on-a-dimeable — that’s what tomorrow’s solo and small firms will look like. It seems that, in some quarters at least, tomorrow has arrived early." He was kind enough to mention my virtual law practice, the Virtual Law Office Technology, and the guest post to Susan's blog.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Guest Blogging

This week I was invited by Susan Cartier Liebel of Build a Solo Practice, LLC to write a blog post describing my virtual practice, the technology that it runs on and why I opted to provide unbundled legal services and fixed fees online. I get great ideas and motivation from reading Susan's blog so I was excited to be able to add my two cents and hopefully introduce the idea of a completely virtual practice to some of her readers. I invite you to read the post here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Unsecure Law Office Emails - Not the Only Way to Talk to Clients Online

Ross Kodner of Ross Ipsa Loquitur posted sections of an interview with his state’s bar journal about the state of legal technology. Predictably, the question of security in legal technology came up here.

As Kodner discusses, email communications are unsecure and to help with the potential ethics violations, he recommends that attorneys let their clients know from the beginning that email is unsecure. This is a good practice tip for attorneys no matter how much technology they use in their day to day practice.

Even though I communicate with my clients through my secure website only, there occasionally are clients who will find my email address and email me rather than use the website interface. When this happens, I make a point of telling them that email is unencrypted and therefore not as secure as my website where, like online banking, they can have more options of communicating with me than in an unsecure email. Once they understand this, most clients will go to the virtual office.

The trend with law office websites is still the “contact us” form that is sent by unencrypted email and gives the client a chance to disclose their legal issues to the attorney or whoever is answering the law office’s incoming email. The concern from my perspective is that this form of unsecure communication will be confused with my secure virtual website and the methods that the vlo technology uses to protect the client’s information.

Not everyone in the legal profession can be computer experts or technology buffs in addition to successful attorneys. If legal professionals understood the basics, that there are forms of electronic communication that are more secure than email and that these methods were easy to use and required little money and energy, then they might have more confidence in integrating (or hiring someone to integrate) that form of communication into their practices for the benefit of their professional development.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Solo Advertising - Needs vs. Wants

I recently commented on The Dreams of a Solo to a post here about how the needs versus wants when starting a solo practice are a fine balance that every solo needs to think about before getting in over their heads.

I didn’t have too much difficulty in determining my technology needs from wants. With the web application, I could just use the computer equipment I already had, even though dual monitors would be swell as would a new Blackberry and a MacBook Air. [Note to self: I need to update my tech “wish list” again before birthday.]

The most difficult part for me in determining the needs versus wants in opening my virtual solo was figuring out what advertising I really “needed.” Advertising expenses can quickly get away from you if you count the cost of new office announcements to other attorneys and membership in different organizations as a form of advertising. These don't even reach the public, just build an attorney network that hopefully results in referrals.

Online versus traditional advertising was my biggest challenge. I erroneously thought that I had to have a listing in the Yellow Pages. Big mistake. Kevin at Real Lawyers Have Blogs recently posted here about how ineffective this is for solos. He’s right. Google is the new phone book. Even if the YP ad came with the online listing that linked to my vlo, it still was not worth the $2,000 plus annual contract. I think I was under the impression from working at my previous firm that it was just what law offices did to have a “presence” locally. Well, if your office is virtual that doesn’t matter so much.

Online directories, such as Lexis’ also proved to not have a good ROI. Unless you can afford the extra cost to “bump” your listing up to the top (i.e., have a BigLaw advertising budget), I don’t think it was worth the expense. The service occasionally resulted in a prospective client but that wasn’t worth the monthly bill and tacky splash page to my website.

I think it took me a good year of figuring out what I really "needed" for advertising to build a decent client base and then keep the business momentum going. I’m still working out the perfect balance. I suspect that, like everything in life, the need-want balance with my virtual practice will always change a little each year.

Friday, January 11, 2008

VLO as a Web Application

Technolawyer's 2008 Predictions for technology as it pertains to the legal profession came out this week. I was pleased to read that web applications were at the top of the list. Here's an excerpt:

3. Web Applications Inch Towards Greater Acceptance

Web applications will continue to make inroads in 2008, but they will not displace desktop software anytime soon.
A Web application can do almost anything a desktop application can do. And now that lawyers have become accustomed to online banking and online backups, concerns about confidentiality have largely vanished.

My vlo is a completely web-based application (Software as a Service, SaaS). Reading through the examples that TechnoLawyer includes, I don't think the legal profession has really been introduced to web applications to the extent that vlo technology takes it.

TechnoLawyer is certainly right about the security and confidentiality concerns. The security is only good as long as the provider of the web application keeps its eye on new security issues as they arise and is prompt about making updates to the software.

The public is ready to add legal services to the list of transactions they are comfortable handling online.

In order for the solo practictioner and even BigLaw to compete with the legalzooms and websites that are out there providing "fill-in-the-form" legal documents and generic legal advice, legal professionals should consider the benefits of a virtual law office. A vlo uses technology as a web application to provide the public with more efficient and convenient legal services while still maintaining the quality that can only come from a client communicating directly with an attorney rather than an automated document-generator.

I'm excited to get more attorneys up and running with this method of practicing law. Yes, I'm shamelessly plugging the software that my husband and I have spent over two years developing and continue to perfect, but it's working for my solo and I believe in it.

Bring on 2008.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Client Building for the VLO

Building a client base for a vlo requires out of the box thinking. I've found that networking works best when I use other popular online networking mediums that are frequented by the online public, my potential clients.

The no-brainer is advertising my vlo on free lawyer referral websites or in free classified ad sections like craigslist. These methods do not necessary result in a large number of new clients, but it drives people to the vlo and builds name recognition for the practice and the vlo concept in general. It's on my weekly to-do list.

The most enjoyable method of networking for clients for me is offering free online educational posts in online forums. Right now, I only have the time to be an active member of one forum, but it would be good if I could add a new one every six months and keep an active presence in each. Forum posting allows you to advertise your business by posting your name, your profession, your vlo and website link to your vlo. Viewed by several hundred forum members a week, this is a great way to build a reputation for the vlo and its services.

The key to posting in forums that are made up of lay people is to write your message in non-lawyer terms and make it understandable from their perspective. Of course, it should go without saying that the other thing to remember is the bar's advertising rules and make sure that anything I write stays in compliance with those. I keep it general enough to not be providing specific legal advice to any one person and explain that everyone has different circumstances. Most of the readers will PM me with specific legal questions if they want to ask a question related to their families.

For starters, I am a member of, a local branch of a nationwide conglomerate of forums created by mothers for mothers. I asked the permission of the forum managers first and explained that I intended this to be educational, not an advertisment for my services. The posts generated some good dialogue about Estate Planning among the mothers in the forum, of which there are close to 500 members all of whom seem to be very active. (As a mother myself, I also post comments and start threads on the forum that are unrelated to the law.) I also offered the members of the forum a small discount on my services should any of them decide to retain me to handle their estate planning services. Even if I never received a client from the educational thread, I've provided useful information to the group and have added some goodwill to my vlo's name that could pay off in the future.

I will post the first part of the educational estate planning thread below for reference. I intend to write more of these for the forum on other topics related to estate planning law in N.C.

New Year’s resolutions often include organizing important family business. So, with the kind permission of the WM managers, I am posting this educational thread about estate planning, starting with Wills. I want to start a dialogue that you all can continue at home with your families. I will also post a helpful checklist for everyone. If anyone wants to ask general questions, feel free. Knowledge = power and I want all us mommies empowered!

This is just educational, general legal advice so if you want to have documents written for your family, I would strongly recommend communicating with an attorney rather than trying to do it yourself. I have experience handling estate administration so I’ve seen both the drafting side and the probate side. Be wary of purchasing estate planning forms from office supply stores or from places like If a licensed NC attorney is not tailoring these documents to your specific needs, then it can have serious consequences. I’ve actually had to fix a few of these fill-in-the-form Wills for clients and in the end it costs them more in the long run. Just a quick tip before getting down to business.

Last Will and Testament Who Needs One?

Anyone who has children. You should name a primary guardian and secondary guardian so that your children will be cared for in the event that something should happen to both you and your spouse.

What Could Happen if You Don’t Have a Will?

If you and your husband don’t have a Will and both of you pass away at the same time, your children may be placed into the care of the New Hanover Department of Social Services until the court system can determine who would be the appropriate guardian for them. The court has the final say in the matter but gives strong weight to the directives of a Will.

How Do You Name a Guardian in the Will?

Your Will tells the court who you want to raise your children in the event of the death of both you and your spouse. Your Will also tells the court how you want the assets of your estate to be distributed to your children’s guardian for the purposes of their health care, education, and overall well-being. If you and your spouse pass away and you have named a guardian in your Will, your child may remain safely with that individual until he or she is formally awarded guardianship by the court. I have a checklist I made up called “How do you Choose A Guardian” which helps parents discuss this emotional decision. If anyone is interested in it as well, just let me know.

What is a Testamentary Trust for Minors and Why is it Important?

The common misunderstanding with trusts is that you and your husband must have a large, multimillion-dollar estate in order to have a testamentary trust. This is not true. Testamentary trusts are a smart way of protecting your children and any inheritance they might receive, no matter the size, and it provides their guardians with any funds they may need to care for your children. The Will sets up a testamentary trust for your minor children. This trust is set up by the executor of your estate when the Will is probated.

A testamentary trust describes how and when the funds from your estate should be distributed to your child. For example, you could write the trust so that half of estate is distributed at age 21 and the other half at age 30. The trend has been to set the age for when the children are older and presumably more responsible so that the children will not come into a sum of money at the age of 18 or before they may be mature enough to responsibly manage the inheritance. You may also design the trust so that the trustee is directed with specific instructions to distribute funds to the guardian for the care of your child, such as for private school tuition or study abroad.

What Does an Executor/Executrix Do?

Naming the Executor/Executrix of your estate ensures that your spouse or the named guardian of your children will know who to turn to during a time of grieving. The Executor will be responsible for the administration of your estate. He or she will take your Will to the Clerk in the Estates Division of the county in which you were a resident upon your death. The Executor/Executrix will set up the estate administration, the testamentary trust and work with the guardian and trustee and Clerk of Court to ensure that the plans written in your Will are handled properly.

By naming an Executor/Executrix in your Will, your loved ones may be able to administer your estate more efficiently and potentially with less expense than if you had not appointed anyone. If you do not have an appointed Executor/Executrix named in a Will, when you pass away, the Clerk of Court will appoint an individual to handle your estate. Usually this individual is the first family member who shows up at the Clerk’s office requesting information regarding intestate (without a Will) administration of the estate.

What are Specific Bequests?

In your Will you may make specific bequests of property to your children or other loved ones. For example, you may want to leave a family heirloom, your jewelry, or a valued stamp collection to your child. Making these specific designations may help prevent interfamily arguments regarding division of your personal property.

Will your Family Know What You Wanted?

In the Will you may describe how you would like your family to remember your life through a funeral, memorial, cremation, burial or other arrangements. You can designate specifics such as the cemetery where you would like to be buried or the church in which you would like a memorial service to be held. Having your wishes written down takes some of the stress of having to make those decisions off of grieving loved ones. Oftentimes these decisions have to be made quickly by the surviving spouse or your children. This section of the Will helps your family members follow your wishes.

Many people also use this section of the Will to write special messages for their children, to tell them they love them or to impart words of wisdom or other family traditions that they want them to remember. This is a very personalized section of the Will and can be as simple or specific as you would like.

What are Sweetheart Wills?

If you are married, you and your spouse should write “sweetheart wills,” or Wills where the provisions mirror each other or work together for the benefit of the family. If you have an estate that you estimate to be larger than $2 million (2008 Federal estate tax exemption amount), I would recommend more complex estate planning methods in addition to a Will that might help with the impact of federal and state taxes.

For most of my clients, simple estate planning is all that is necessary given the size of their estates and the fact that they will most likely be updating their Wills several times later on in their lives.

O.k. that's all for now. I hope this is useful and wasn't too long a post. Everyone let me know your thoughts. Obviously, I am not the only attorney around to choose from, but I'm offering a special discount on my estate planning package to any mommies on this forum. Just PM me or go to my online law office.
Stephanie - Proud mother of DD (1/06). Happily married to DH since 2001.
Attorney practicing law online from home at