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.


D. Todd Smith said...

I am following the development of VLO technology with interest. As a solo, I am particularly intrigued by the ability for clients, virtual assistants, paralegals, and/or contract lawyers to converge in one central place over the internet. I'm using Basecamp for this sort of functionality now, but think it would be ideal to have everything I need (primarily timekeeping and billing, calendaring, contact management, and document creation and management) accessible in one place designed specifically for a law practice. It looks like a great alternative to the traditional computer network.

One question: Would a LexBlog blog be a sufficient web presence to tie into your service? said...

Mr. Smith:

Yes, the VLOTech application could be added to the LexBlog blog. I've read posts on your Texas Appellate Law Blog before. It's a great resource for your practice area.

There are several ways a VLOTech virtual law office could be set up. You would need to have either a login for online clients, attorneys and legal assistants on the homepage of your blog or a button taking them to the secure area where they would then log-in.

We'd be happy to discuss how this would work if you are interested in the future.