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.