Monday, May 19, 2008

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.

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