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