The Firm: Should you consider a virtual law practice?

By Corey Stephenson
The Daily Record Newswire

A virtual law practice offers many advantages for a solo or small firm lawyer.

“Especially for the sole practitioner and small firms, a virtual law office allows [you] to capture new clients and deliver limited or unbundled services online,” said virtual law office pioneer Stephanie Kimbro, who launched her North Carolina-based practice in 2007.  “A large segment of the public  is turning to online legal services to meet their needs, and a virtual practice lets lawyers tap into that market and generate revenue.”

The virtual component could be just one piece of a lawyer’s practice, suggested Kimbro, author of The Virtual Law Firm: How to Build Your Practice in An Online World and the Virtual Law Practice blog.

Marc Lauritsen, president of Massachusetts-based Capstone Practice Systems, a company that helps law firms with technology, said that establishing a virtual practice has never been easier thanks to “high-quality, reasonably priced” software.

Even three or four years ago, the “technological courage and effort” required by an attorney was much greater, Lauritsen said. Today, the programs are as simple as other online systems like banking.

And given the low cost — a base client portal runs about $50 per month, said Richard Granat, president and CEO of The Granat Group Inc., a company that delivers legal services over the Internet — the risk of trying virtual lawyering is minimal.

However, not every practice area is suited to a virtual firm, said Lauritsen, co-chair of the American Bar Association’s eLawyering Task Force.

While corporate documents and routine estate planning are conducive to virtual lawyering, practices that require a lot of direct personal interaction may not fare as well, he noted.

Lawyers with an older clientele may find that their clients don’t use the web or are not comfortable dealing with legal matters online, and criminal defense attorneys may require face-to-face interaction to try to evaluate their clients’ credibility, noted Granat, author of the eLawyering blog.

Lawyers embracing the virtual practice movement should remember their ethical obligations, especially when contacted by clients outside of their jurisdictions.

One of the dangers of an online practice is the potential to commit the unauthorized practice of law, so “make sure the public knows where you are licensed to practice and conduct thorough conflict checks,” Kimbro advised.

Be very clear about what your jurisdiction requires, Lauritsen added, noting that New Jersey, for example, requires its lawyers to maintain a brick-and-mortar office.
Security concerns also go hand-in-hand with virtual lawyering.

Attorneys should thoroughly research and understand their relationship with third-party providers, Kimbro said, knowing who has access to their data and what the retention policies are, as well as where servers are located and back-ups stored.

Finally, lawyers should remember that “they can build it, but it doesn’t mean they are going to come,” Kimbro cautioned. “Like hanging up a regular shingle, [a virtual law practice] takes hard work.”

Lawyers launching a virtual firm should understand their audience and how to market their services online, she said. That means mastering concepts like search engine optimization, and getting visitors to register at their site and, in turn, become paying clients.

“A virtual law practice is not a magic solution,” said Kimbro. “Lawyers shouldn’t expect it to make money right away.”

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