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.