2011 will be the sixth year that I have delivered legal services online using my virtual law office. Many of the changes I have seen since that first year have been positive.
There is greater acceptance within the profession of the use of technology to deliver legal services. New software products have been developed that allow attorneys in firms of all sizes to communicate and work with their clients and each other over the Internet. Many courts across the nation now require efiling and some non-profit organizations have implemented cloud computing solutions that provide self-help to the pro se litigant. More virtual law firms have emerged with different models of providing unbundled legal services to the public. This is encouraging progress.
The number of traditional law firms adding client portals and virtual law offices has risen slightly more than the number of completely web-based law firms. This is probably due to continued concerns and misunderstandings about the use of cloud computing in law practice management and using a third-party company to host law office data. It may also be due to the difficulty that some completely web-based virtual law offices have in building their online client base and generating the number of prospective clients necessary to make this form of practice possible.
As the ABA’s Commission on Ethics 20/20 evaluates the use of the Internet as a client development tool over this next year, there is the possibility that we may see regulations making online marketing of a virtual law office more difficult. So the trend of VLOs growing faster in traditional, brick & mortar law offices will probably continue.
Even BigLaw firms, such as Rimon Law, have created their own client portals and seem to be focusing more on delivering services online to clients directly. Once BigLaw embraces the virtual law office, I’ll predict that we see much faster acceptance across the board.
Some interesting trends, some positive and others annoying, that I’ve seen in my own virtual law practice over the past five years:
1) Clients question the process of working with me online a lot less. I do much less explaining and handholding than I had to in the beginning. They don’t need to be walked through the online registration process or to be reminded to quick to accept the price quote for services, etc.
2) More prospective clients register on my VLO, but many of them are requesting legal services outside of the practice area that I handle. I have my areas of practice written all over my website, but for some reason, I get requests for child support, child custody, landlord/tenant and sometimes even criminal assistance. I’ve had to build my online referral database and get more efficient at posting the necessary notes declining representation and referring them elsewhere. I think this is evidence that more consumers are seeking online legal services – and we need more VLOs operated by licensed attorneys to meet this need.
3) I’ve figured out how to dedicate 10% of my practice to online, unbundled pro bono work. As any solo will tell you, you want to do more pro bono work, but it’s hard in the beginning of building your practice to figure out how to fit it in because you are focusing on the work that will keep you afloat. I’ve been able to work with pro bono clients online who have sought me out over the Internet and even collaborated with one of these clients and a government agency to meet the client’s needs. The client was three hours away and I never met the individual in person. I’m proud of being able to provide a service like this.
4) Advertising is a little less painful. I have only one traditional print ad that still gives me a decent ROI. But I don’t waste money on directory listings where I would be competing with firms with more advertising money to spend. Instead, I’ve focused more on integrating social media interactions into my daily work and use that to build my VLO’s reputation.
5) Clients are more likely to scan in and upload documents to my VLO. In my first two years of practicing law online, many clients either did not know how or did not have the technology to scan in their documents so they would snail mail them to me or fax them. Paper around my office has greatly decreased and I no longer use an efax service.
6) Many online clients do not understand the need to protect their own legal matters from circulation the Internet. Clients still attempt to “friend” or “follow” me on different social media applications. This has prompted me to provide them with a statement at the start of the relationship that lets them know my social media policy towards clients and to warn them about the dangers of posting their confidential information to friends and family online. They seem to know that security is important, but many of them do not know how to set their privacy settings in Facebook and other applications. It hasn’t resulted in any problems for my clients that I know of, especially given the nature of the practice areas I handle, but the lack of education and restraint worries me.
7) I do a lot more web-conferencing than speaking in-person. This change has been just in the past year and is mostly related to my speaking to different state bars and law schools about my practice, but even more clients seem willing to hold a web-conference than they did just five years ago.
Many of these changes are evidence that the public is more aware of virtual law offices as an alternative to traditional law offices. Our clients are more comfortable working online with professionals and they are looking for online unbundled legal services. As more forms of virtual law practice emerge it will be exciting to see how the public’s perception of the legal profession improves as we start meeting this market need for online legal services.