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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    November 01, 2014

    10 Questions
    Tom Burton: How a Nontechie Built a Virtual Practice

    As a newer lawyer, Tom Burton was looking forward to opening his own law office. Being cash strapped, he needed a way to do it without taking on any more debt. He’d heard about the concept of virtual practice and was intrigued. So he read everything he could on the subject, tapped into other folks’ experience, and hung out his virtual shingle. If he can do it, he says, so can you.

    You operate a virtual law office. What does that mean?

    A virtual law office is a 21st-century way of delivering legal services to clients. Each person who operates a virtual law office might have a slightly different definition of the term, but for me it means I work from a home office and meet with my clients using a variety of methods, including email, phone calls, and a secure client portal. It also means I don’t rent traditional office space to meet with clients but instead I use my office as a “virtual” storefront. On my website, clients can request a phone or skype consultation.

    Why did you open a virtual law office?

    Two reasons: I was already helping some clients, from my home, using my laptop and a cellphone; and I lacked the funds to rent physical office space right from the start. I was tired of turning away potential clients because I was not fully “set up” to help them, so I decided to obtain malpractice insurance, build a website, obtain phone services, and do the many other things necessary to officially open my practice to the public. Many landlords want you to sign a one- or two-year lease, and require money up front for a deposit, not to mention the costs of Internet and utility services at a new office space. I already had plenty of student-loan debt, and I didn’t want to incur more debt just to start my practice.

    The concept of a virtual law office was not that hard to understand, and it appealed to me as a lower-cost way to get my own practice started. I also liked the idea that I could help clients no matter where they were located in Wisconsin or Minnesota, because I am licensed in both states. Finally, I felt that if I could keep my overhead reasonable, I could provide certain transactional legal services at a reasonable price and still make a living.

    How did you know how to open a virtual law office?

    I graduated from the U.W. Law School in December 2010. I had not even heard of the concept of a virtual law office when I was in law school. It wasn’t until the spring of 2013 that I heard about the idea from a conference the State Bar was putting on about starting your own law firm. The conference had an hour devoted to the topic of virtual law practices, and featured Michael Brennan, “The Virtual Attorney,” as a presenter. I was not able to attend the conference but I checked out Michael’s website, which explained the concept very well, and I then began reading everything I could find on the topic on blogs and other websites. Michael was very helpful, and he even let me use his website’s terms of use as a model for my website.

    How do you find new clients?

    A virtual law office in itself will not bring you clients or make you successful. I view my website as a tool, from which potential clients can gather information and set an appointment to speak with me. Potential clients must meet you or find your website before they will even consider hiring you as their attorney. Most of my best clients have come from referrals or people I met by in-person networking. However, like most traditional practices, I have also gotten good clients who found me through my website. Often these clients are in other cities and are people I would not likely have met through in-person networking. For this reason, the virtual law office is very valuable because it allows you to expand your reach throughout the state in which you are licensed.

    What kinds of legal services do you provide?

    I focus mainly on transactional areas of law, including estate planning, business law, and tax preparation and advice. These areas lend themselves well to a virtual law practice, since they usually do not require travel, and the need for the attorney and client to be in the same place is minimized. This is helpful when your client is three or four hours away, and it allows me to help people who I otherwise would likely turn away.

    I live in Chippewa Falls and have helped clients as far away as Milwaukee and as close as Eau Claire, all through my virtual office. It is nice to know I can attend an event in Madison, or Milwaukee, and if I meet someone who needs my services, I am set up to help them. I enjoy working with business owners to help them solve business and legal problems, and I look for ways to minimize their legal risks and exposure. I am also able to work with other attorneys and help them with projects for their clients. For instance, an attorney from Minnesota, who contacted me through my website, contracted with me to prepare deeds for transferring a cabin his clients owned in Wisconsin into their newly formed trust.

    On what services do you offer flat-fee rates?

    I offer flat-fee pricing on many estate-planning packages and some business law services, such as contract review and advice. This way my clients usually know up front what something will cost. I also offer hourly rates for services for which hourly billing might be more appropriate, such as more complex estate-planning situations or for business clients who require ongoing advice. My goal is to partner with many smaller businesses, which need legal advice but are not large enough to hire in-house counsel. I recently had a client, a new business start-up, express concerns about the cost of the legal advice they were seeking, and I was able to say I understand their concern since I am operating a start-up business as well. We were able to settle on a fee structure that is beneficial to both sides.

    Tell us about sliding-scale legal fees. Why do you offer them at your office?

    I came across this idea from two Minnesota firms that were offering such fees, Cooper & Reid and Glencoe Law Office. I read about the system on their websites, and it made sense to me. I offer sliding-scale fees on certain basic estate-planning packages because I believe it is important to have an estate plan in place for your family, no matter what your income or net worth. I cannot offer sliding-scale fees in all areas of law, since I limit my practice to a few specific areas. However, I felt that if I could at least offer them in the estate-planning area, it would be a useful thing to do.

    My sliding-scale fees are based on the federal poverty guidelines, which are published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The table contains a discount based on your income and number of dependents. For instance, let’s say you have an annual combined (gross) family income of $19,000, total net worth of less than $250,000, you have three dependents, and your legal fees before adjustment are $700. After adjustment ($700 x 55 percent), your legal fees are $385. Discounts range from 10-50 percent. I offer additional examples on my website.

    What’s your advice for other lawyers thinking about opening virtual law offices?

    Read as much as you can about the concept before you decide to give it a try. You should not enter lightly into opening your own practice. Consider whether you can offer services that would work well with a virtual law office. I spent several months reading and researching the idea before I decided to launch. has a good post called “Starting a Solo Law Practice for Under $3,000” and an accompanying post called “How Much it Really Costs to Start a Solo Practice.” I recommend reading both for a realistic idea of the very basics necessary to get going. Also read Jay Foonberg’s book How to Start and Build a Law Practice as well as the article “Going Solo Without Breaking the Bank” at page 55 in this issue. Finally, join the State Bar’s Solo and Small Firm electronic list. I have found the lawyers on this list to be immensely helpful and generous with their time, and I learn things weekly just by reading questions and responses by other attorneys.

    What if I am not a techie?

    That’s okay, I’m not either. You don’t have to be a computer programmer to run a virtual law practice. If you can successfully understand and use online banking, you can probably understand the technology needed to operate a virtual law practice. I was a business economics major in college. I’ve never taken a computer science course, and I do not know how to write computer code.

    However, thanks to the variety of do-it-yourself website builders that have become available in the last several years, I was able to teach myself to build my own website and set up the technology tools needed to run my practice virtually. You certainly don’t have to build your own website; I just did it because I wanted to control the content and save money on the front end. There are many good website designers who can build you a great website for a reasonable price. Don’t let the technology scare you; I believe anyone can master that side if they want to. Also, the State Bar has a law practice management advisor, Tison Rhine, who is available to help you with technology advice, available at And, you can email me if you have any questions you think I can help you with.

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