Over the past year I’ve spoken with attorneys who have been laid off from Biglaw firms and are seeking new positions or attorneys who have just passed the bar and are having trouble finding a position to launch their legal careers. Both groups of individuals are working hard to establish or reinvent themselves within the legal profession and are seeking my advice about using a virtual law practice as a way to do this. They want to operate a solo virtual law practice “in the meantime.”
Solo virtual law practice is not for everyone, and while I love the independence that it provides me, I recognize that other attorneys have different goals for their legal careers. Therefore, I try to give useful advice that would apply to the attorney’s individual goals and circumstances.
Can a virtual law practice be used effectively in between phases in an attorney’s career — from firm to firm? Will the attorney be able to take the virtual law practice with him or her when that dream legal job comes along? Will it pay the bills if the attorney is only going to be delivering legal services online on a temporary basis? If the attorney is a newly graduated attorney can he or she work online and learn an entirely new practice area of law without having worked in an actual law office?
These are difficult, but critical questions for attorneys in such situations to ask before embarking on a virtual law practice. I’ve combined some of my responses to these questions below.
Some attorneys are using a VLO for the purpose of building or continuing to build on their career resumes while searching for their ideal position in a firm. The flexibility of a virtual law practice allows you to do a number of things, from continuing to build your own practice to finding a position in a larger firm and keeping those clients on the side or taking the VLO to the firm with you. It really depends on where you end up and how open that new law practice will be to using the technology to deliver legal services to their clients or if they will allow you to continue to retain your online clients that are unable to come to a physical law office due to geographic distance.
Is VLO is right for you at this point in your career if you only plan on using it as a temporary method of law practice until finding a desired position in a medium-sized law firm? Will it pay the bills?
It depends on what you start out with when you open your virtual law practice and what you will financially need for the practice to cover for you and your family’s expenses. If you already have established a client base that you could bring with you into the practice, then you would be able to open your VLO, hit the ground running and expand from there. However, please be aware that just opening a VLO does not mean that prospective clients will automatically find you online to retain you for legal services. Regardless of what product you end up using, you will have to invest either time or money in advertising and marketing your firm in order to push prospective clients to your VLO.
From my own experience, it took about six months of active marketing (more time and energy in my case than monetary investment) before I started to see a steady client base. That is why if you have some clients that you can push over into the VLO when you first start up that would help to accomplish a steady income stream for you to be able to grow the virtual law practice from referrals and give your marketing time to kick in while you continue to search for your dream law job. If you do not have any clients to work with online when you start out, look at opening a virtual law practice the same way that you would hanging your own shingle on a traditional brick & mortar office, especially if you are the sole provider for yourself and your family. The ABA has some good resources for this, and I believe the standard recommendation to be on the safe side is to have at least one year’s salary saved up before going out as a solo. But considering that I didn’t follow this advice myself, I’d say that decision also depends on how much of a risk-taker you are as a business owner.
Can you teach yourself an entirely new area of law to practice without working in a physical law office?
Yes, with dedication and good resources. I enjoy working with families on their estate planning and with small business owners but have also taught myself how to draft documents and provide advice online related to other practice areas that I have not received previous training in. For example, I have drafted separation agreements for estate planning clients that came back to me online for this additional work. I recruited the assistance of a senior family law attorney in my jurisdiction to help me with the drafting of this document the first time. In special cases like that where I may only represent one party online, I make sure that the other party knows that it is their responsibility to retain their own attorney and ensure that this is done before continuing to draft the document. In addition, the document itself contains a clause stating that the other party was aware that he or she was advised to retain their own attorney before signing the agreement.
As another example, with the execution of estate planning documents, from the beginning of the establishment of the attorney/client relationship on my VLO, the client is made aware of the nature of unbundled legal services. The client is told that he or she will be responsible for the execution of the final documents. In NC, execution of estate planning documents must be done before a notary and two disinterested witnesses. The notary must verify the identity of the client by checking the driver’s license and the two witnesses are signing to testify that the individual is who he or she claims to be and that the signor is competent, over the age of 18, etc.
Basically, the responsibility for the proper execution is placed on the online clients and they are given instructions and the ability to contact me if they have any questions during that process or afterwards. In your engagement letter with the online client they are agreeing to this level and form of representation. Considering the cost savings and convenience to the client, most of them are eager to do the footwork themselves with guidance.
If I find that there is a client matter that requires more representation than I may handle online, I use the referral database in my VLO and send them to a full-service firm, preferably one with a VLO so that they may continue to work online in addition to receiving in-person attention. I have not had to do this very often after starting work on a case because I can pretty effectively weed out those cases during the client intake process before starting representation. Remember, you may always call or hold a Skype conference with online clients if you need to see or talk to them in-person. There is also the ability to collaborate on a case with another attorney while using your VLO.
In many ways, a VLO is no different than working as a solo practitioner at a brick & mortar law office. If you do not have the experience to draft a document or provide advice to the client, then you should not take the case regardless of the method by which it is delivered. When I first started out, I relied on our state bar association’s silent mentor program and turned to other experienced attorneys for guidance. Most of these resources were online through the state bar association’s forums and listservs for specific practice areas. Finding a mentor should not be a problem to assist you in learning family law. See my previous blog post about online document drafting resources with links to some of those resources. Use these as learning tools along with consulting with a mentor to make sure you are competent to provide certain services — regardless of whether it’s delivered online or in-person. You might want to check out resources like Total Practice Management Association or Solo Practice University to find mentors in your specific practice area. There is really a wealth of resources online, and I’ve found that many experienced attorneys are more than happy to share their knowledge through emails and phone calls if you just ask.