“I really had no contacts in Madison,” said Madison attorney Brent Hoeft, who runs the virtual law office of Hoeft Law LLC. “Had I opened up a traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ law firm, I think it would have been much more difficult to tap into a client base.”
Sept. 5, 2012 – For the past few years, legal technology experts have talked about lawyers’ ability to deliver legal services online through virtual law offices. While “eLawyering” opens new doors to work-life balance, efficiency, and flexibility, it is not a portal to instant success.
“Really, the only difference between a traditional and virtual law practice is delivery,” said Madison attorney Brent Hoeft, who runs the virtual law office of Hoeft Law LLC. “I still have to do the same leg work. It’s not a magic potion to attract new clients using the Internet.”
Virtual law offices allow lawyers to deliver legal services through secure Internet platforms and client portals, from anywhere. Total Attorneys, Direct Law, My Case, Clio, and Rocket Matter are among emerging companies racing to give lawyers new virtual law office solutions.
Hoeft (Cleveland-Marshall 2006) started his virtual law practice nearly two years ago. The Port Washington native was practicing at a small law firm in Cleveland when his wife, also a Wisconsin native, accepted a job offer in Madison. Soon, they had a newborn son, and Hoeft took on the role of stay-at-home dad. He put his solo practice plans on hold.
“Then I stumbled across information on virtual law practices,” said Hoeft, a panelist on the topic of virtual law offices at the upcoming Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference, Oct. 25-27, at the Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells. “The more I learned about it, the more I realized it was something I could do.”
Now Hoeft works from home through his virtual law office, having invested in a website and the software and hardware necessary to run it. But his ability to offer online legal services alone has not brought in clients, a misconception he held before building his virtual law office.
“I assumed there would be far more people accessing my services through online searches, but that’s just not the case,” he said. “I think lawyers may overestimate that part of it.”
Virtual Law with Traditional Networking
For the type of law that Hoeft practices, estate planning, business law, and real estate – all document-driven areas of law – a virtual law office works well, he says.
“After the initial consultation with prospective clients, the virtual law office sort of kicks in,” Hoeft said. “A lot of client interaction takes place via phone or video conference. And we can exchange documents through client portals, which I find to be more secure than email.”
In addition, Hoeft works mainly in the evenings and weekends, when his wife can take over parenting duties. He says clients appreciate not having to skip work for meetings or prefer to be at home when discussing financial data or personal circumstances.
Another advantage of virtual law practice is the ability to reach beyond city or county limits for clients, he says. Although Hoeft lives in Madison, many of his clients are from the Milwaukee area where he grew up. He says he tapped old networks, friends, and family to get started.
The virtual law office allowed him to connect with his Milwaukee network, and provide legal services to distant clients through the virtual law office tools.
“I really had no contacts in Madison,” Hoeft said. “Had I opened up a traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ law firm, I think it would have been much more difficult to tap into a client base.”
Now, most of Hoeft’s new clients come in the form of referrals, the type of client development that squares with at least one recent study on how consumers search for legal services.
According to a 2010 poll commissioned by the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, 46 percent of the 1,004 people surveyed ask a friend, family member, or colleague to recommend a lawyer.1 Another 34 percent use lawyers they know or have used before. Only 7 percent use the Internet as the primary means to find a lawyer for legal matters.
“I thought people would jump on Google and try to find virtual legal services based on something they heard or read,” Hoeft said. “It’s just not happening. I’ve built a client base in the traditional way, through referrals from clients I’ve already done work for.”
Hoeft uses the Total Attorneys platform, which costs $1 per month for a basic practice management “dashboard” that includes time and billing options, matter management, and secure, encrypted portals for uploading and downloading documents, and for messaging.
Additional features, such as payment processing, marketing, and legal research, add monthly costs. Other companies like Direct Law offer similar “core services,” and web-enabled, document automation features to compete with online legal document providers.
Some virtual law office providers offer a menu of form documents for sale, or develop rough drafts of legal documents based on online questionnaires. A step further, lawyers can customize drafts based on the client’s needs, and offer legal advice if they want it.
Hoeft didn’t go that route, instead opting for a more basic virtual practice. “The service I chose is more focused on practice management with a client portal as an added feature. It just allows me to offer traditional legal services in a different kind of way,” Hoeft said.
Virtual Team Collaboration
While Hoeft uses his virtual law office primarily to connect and collaborate with clients, others are using virtual platforms to connect staff members. Firms can use virtual platforms to connect attorneys, paralegals, and other staff who work from home or elsewhere.
“Courtesy of the Internet, the solo or small firm lawyer can really level the playing field by adding virtual components to their existing brick-and-mortar practices,” said David Bilinsky, a lawyer, consultant, and past co-chair of the ABA Techshow.
But Bilinsky, also a featured speaker at the upcoming Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference, says there are important considerations before taking this road.
“For starters, virtual team lawyers and staff must be comfortable working with technology,” he said. “And virtual team members have to govern themselves and be disciplined.” In his presentation, “Solo but Not Alone: How to Assemble Your Virtual Team,” Bilinsky will consider:
- How to assemble a virtual team;
- How to keep virtual team members connected and cohesive;
- Who can be part of the virtual team;
- What collaboration software is necessary;
- How lawyers can ethically and effectively communicate;
- Whether lawyers need face-to-face meetings to keep the process going;
- Where lawyers are doing this, and the kinds of tools they use.
Lawyer Nicole Garton-Jones manages a virtual legal team in Vancouver, B.C. In 2005, she founded the region’s first virtual law office with a vision of luring talented attorneys, mostly working mothers, from big firms with a promise of work-life balance and flexibility. The firm, Heritage Law, has a physical location now, but still maintains the virtual component.
Using Yammer, a social networking application for businesses, staff lawyers and paralegals can communicate directly in real-time. And virtual practice management software gives staff the tools to collaborate “in the cloud” from any place with an Internet connection.
“It has allowed me to retain talented individuals who live too far to commute, or want the flexibility that a virtual firm offers,” Garton-Jones said.
There’s one problem though: too much “life” in the work-life balance. “For people who are juggling work with kids, the autonomy is great,” Garton-Jones said. “But I’m starting to make changes to ensure a proper balance between autonomy and productivity.”
The working mother of two embraces the virtual aspect of the firm to make time for family and other professional endeavors. Garton-Jones volunteers on boards and writes for an online legal magazine. She also volunteers to support the election of women to public office.
“Because I have this efficient virtual machine, I’m able to do a lot of different things. But it’s not for everyone,” she said. “Lawyers just have to weigh the pros and cons.”
Solo and Small Firm Conference
With programming on virtual law offices and virtual teams scheduled for the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference (WSSFC), Oct. 25-27, at the Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells, lawyers can help determine the pros and cons of virtual practice and collaboration.
Visit the WSSFC webpage to view the schedule and to register for the event. The WSSFC is hosted by State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE® with the Milwaukee Bar Association, a founding co-sponsor, along with and other major sponsors and exhibitors.
Joe Forward is the legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.
1 ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, Perspectives on Finding Personal Legal Services, February 2011.