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.


Susan Cartier Liebel said...

Stephanie, before I stopped practicing divorce law, it was starting to become common practice to ask for more common forms of ID like driver's licenses before initiating a dissolution. While this doesn't protect against criminal behavior (like impersonation) it's a tangible form of due diligence by the attorney to identify the person is who they say they are.

Otherwise, you are correct. If I were practicing today and using a VLO, I think I would require (for my own piece of mind) some traditional form of identification.

Susan Cartier Liebel
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Thanks for your comment, Susan.

With a VLO there are a couple ways to verify that the person is who he or she claims to be. The extent to which I investigate it depends on the legal services requested. Rarely will I ask a client to scan and upload their license to their homepage, but the option is there.

The amount of work an attorney puts into investigating the veracity of his or her clients would also depend on the rules of professional conduct set up by their state bar. I would be curious to know what the big legal document drafting services, such as LegalZoom, do to verify the identity of their customers - if they do anything at all.