March 3, 2010 – A virtual law office, or VLO, is much more robust, and secure, than exchanging emails with a client or potential client. The technology has evolved in such a way that lawyers can establish solo firms out of their homes for a minimal monthly fee, yet be assured that they are well within the ethical boundaries required to provide online legal services.
“With a virtual law office, I can provide unbundled legal services,” said Stephanie Kimbro, co-owner, Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC and Owner of Kimbro Legal Services, LLC where she is licensed to practice in North Carolina. “That means I can offer my services at a more affordable rate than clients would be able get at a full-service law firm.”
Defining virtual law
“It’s important to distinguish what a virtual law practice is not,” said Kimbro. “A virtual law practice is not a legal document Web site, such as LegalZoom, it’s not a law firm marketing site that just has an email “contact us” link, and it’s not client-to-lawyer email communication, even if it occurs through the law firm’s servers.”
A defining characteristic of a virtual law firm or VLO is a secure portal for the establishment of the client relationship, client communication, and billing and payment.
The VLO portal is generally implemented as Software as a Service, or SaaS. This means a service provider will charge a small monthly fee to provide access to the virtual law office software and host the secure portal and data, according to Richard Granat of CEO of DirectLaw, Inc. There usually is no up-front or set-up charges. Granat also is owner of MDFamilyLawyer.com where he practices family law in Maryland and co-chairs the American Bar Association Law Practice Management Section’s eLawyering Task Force.
The benefits, particularly for lawyers who are between jobs or for new lawyers, is that there isn’t a significant sunk cost to establish the VLO, which means flexibility should that dream job offer materialize nine months later.
For Kimbro, that flexibility was key in making the jump to a VLO. “With the flexibility that’s offered through the VLO, I can work as much as I want to,” she added. “When my daughter was born, I was able to work with the kind of clients I wanted to but still be able to stay home with her when she was a baby.”
Prospective clients will typically fill out a detailed contact form, and will be required to review and click through a preliminary engagement or retainer letter to initiate a service request with the lawyer. The lawyer will then run a conflict check, and a jurisdiction check to ensure that the client is located in a state in which the lawyer is licensed to practice, before confirming the engagement with the client, according to Granat. In some instances, with unbundled legal services, there will be a flat fee that is charged directly to the client’s credit card at that time as well.
Kimbro found that the unbundled nature of the services that can be offered through the VLO allowed her to work with a broader range of clients, including clients that wouldn’t have qualified as clients in the law firm she used to work at.
“At my old firm, we would get calls from people who needed basic legal help, but didn’t qualify for legal aid but also didn’t qualify to come to us,” Kimbro added. “I would end up having to send clients elsewhere. It got to be such a large number that it dawned on me that there was a market for these kinds of services.”
Virtual law firms support unbundled legal services
“Virtual law firms support several different business models, including unbundled legal services and unpriced, or billable, legal services,” said Granat.
With unbundled services, the lawyer can provide the documents, and the legal consultation, if needed, but the client will handle any filings or notarizations that need to take place.
“The client does the footwork, and you do the legal services,” said Kimbro. After Kimbro drafts documents, she sends them to the client along with instructions on how to finalize them, such as taking them to a notary public or filing them.
The key is for the lawyer to have frequent and repeated communication with the client about the scope of the services to ensure there are no surprises about what is, and is not, covered by the fee.
According to Granat, there is more resistance in traditional legal circles to the economic model of unbundled legal services, as it is seen to undercut the traditional law practice.
Other firms, however, are taking the approach of offering both the full-service law experience for the clients who expect and want that level of service, as well as a VLO for those clients who want to interact online or have a more limited, defined need.
“The biggest issue is age,” Granat said. “Younger lawyers, and clients, typically are much more comfortable with the technology than older clients. Younger clients don’t understand why, when they can run the rest of their life online, they would need to take three hours out of the work day to go sit in a lawyer’s office to watch them take notes on a yellow pad and get back to them next week.”
By Deborah G. Spanic, legal writer
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