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  • October 26, 2012

    Technology, Virtual Practice Overarching Themes at Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference

    Technology, Virtual Practice Overarching Themes at Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference

    2012 Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference

    State Bar President Kevin Klein (left) and U.W. Law School Dean Margaret Raymond were among a panel discussing the future of law practice at the Wisconsin and Solo and Small Firm Conference in Wisconsin Dells.

    2012 Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference

    Attorney Tom Watson, vice president at Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company, moderated a panel of lawyers addressing "Real World Thoughts on the Virtual Practice of Law."

    2012 Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference

    Tammie Clendenning (right) gave a presentation on creative ways to save money on law firm technology and Aaron Leveston (center) and Melissa Line (left) were among the many vendors in the expo center answering questions about useful products.

    Oct. 26, 2012 – It’s not uncommon to hear the words “challenge” and “opportunity” alongside “technology” and the “practice of law.” In fact, technology’s impact on law practice is an overarching theme at the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference, which kicked off yesterday in Wisconsin Dells.

    Featured speakers and panelists are focusing on “virtual law practice” and the “future of law” in a world that is both changing consumer behavior and creating new economic realities for lawyers. Amidst change, lawyers must explore law practice solutions while recognizing what clients want.

    “To the extent lawyers are assessing new technology tools to improve their own efficiencies, they must also view technology from the perspective of the client,” said State Bar President Kevin Klein, a solo practitioner in Phillips and a panelist addressing the future of law practice.

    For instance, consumers are increasingly purchasing products online, and may have an increased expectation that lawyers deliver the same conveniences to their clients. Other consumers want a-la-carte legal services, known as limited scope representation or unbundled legal services.

    Lawyers are also competing with entities such LegalZoom, which provide basic legal documents online. As the State Bar’s Practice Management Advisor Nerino Petro says, “If you haven’t heard of LegalZoom or RocketLawyer, you better learn. These entities present a real challenge to the profession.”

    Some lawyers are finding new ways to bridge consumer gaps through online tools, which can increase efficiencies, decrease costs, and make lawyers more accessible. A handful of these attorneys were on hand to address the questions and concerns of solo and small firm practitioners taking similar steps.

    “The Internet is how people access products, so why should the law be any different?” asked virtual law practitioner Michael Brennan, a panelist on “Real World Thoughts on the Virtual Practice of Law.”

    Brennan practices business law and estate planning across three states through his virtual law officebut is based in Milwaukee. “I’ve done substantial deals without ever meeting a client face-to-face. But there are challenges,” he said. “It’s a new concept, and consumers aren’t really aware that we exist.”

    Other panelists, such as Thomas Schumacher, Kathy Brost and Zeshan Usman, use virtual practice tools such as email and cloud computing to reduce overhead.

    “The clients care most about your expertise,” said Schumacher, whose firm is considering office-sharing arrangements to lower overhead costs.  “They don’t care where you’re located.”

    Of course, State Bar Ethics Counsel Tim Pierce was empaneled to address the ethical implications of practicing law through virtual and online practice tools.

    “Lawyers must ask, ‘can I competently represent the client without ever meeting them?’ What we are hearing is that it can work for some practice areas but not others,” said Pierce, who also noted issues with limited scope representation and confidentiality, among others.

    Big changes are coming to the profession of law through technology, affecting not just for how attorneys run their practice, but client expectations as well. State Bar President Kevin Klein discusses these and other trends and what they mean for lawyers, especially sole practitioners. Klein was a panelist for the opening plenary presentation of the 2012 Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference.

    David Bilinsky, practice management advisor and consultant for the Law Society of British Columbia, gave his own presentation today on “How to Assemble Your Virtual Team,” explaining how lawyers can use collaborative technologies to reach new clients and a build virtual legal staff.

    Petro encouraged the packed house of solo and small firm practitioners to try the technology tools that can help them succeed. “Technology has gotten to the point where we can do this and do it effectively,” he said. “Lawyers have a tendency to fear the worst case scenario. But don’t be afraid to try it.”

    Technology also presents challenges and opportunities for the court system. John Voelker, director of state courts, joined the “future of the law” panel, noting that nearly 80 percent of the state’s judges will be eligible to retire in two years, and new judges will have different expectations in terms of technology.

    He says the court system will be encouraging more lawyers to use the e-filing system that is currently operating in 18 counties at the circuit court level, with expansion in future years.

    “E-filing presents a unique opportunity for us as a court system,” Voelker said, noting that e-filing eliminates the need for data entry by court clerks and lawyers can file documents 24 hours a day.

    Meanwhile, technical and conceptual ideas are fueling talks among the nearly 400 lawyers attending breakout sessions on technology, substantive law, practice management, and ethics.

    “The communication among attorneys gives new ideas and new perspectives,” said Klein, noting the importance of solo and small firm practitioners meeting annually to discuss new challenges and solutions. “There’s a great benefit in talking with other lawyers about the issues we all face.”

    Many of the programs from the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference, which ends with a half-day session tomorrow at the Chula Vista Resort, will be available via webcast in the near future.


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