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.