Defining virtual law practice and the delivery of legal services online by licensed professionals is becoming ever more important as the market continues to fill with companies offering various forms of online legal services. Two of the biggest concerns that surround these companies include the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) and misleading the public. Many of these entities do not provide attorney review of the legal documents that they sale online and are coming up against strong criticism for this aspect as well some of their marketing techniques. For example, the Connecticut Bar Association has formed a task force to review the websites that provide unbundled online legal services. According to the task force, their primary concern is for the consumer’s safety. Last year the North Carolina State Bar’s Authorized Practice Committee also investigated the services provided by LegalZoom claiming they constituted UPL by non-licensed professionals.
Let’s be clear: the Internet-based legal services companies facing criticism do not provide the same level of quality or security of a virtual law office.
Rice Law, LLC, a North Carolina Virtual Law Office, recently posted an educational article on their virtual law office website advising prospective online clients about the difference between the companies offering legal forms for sale online and the services of a licensed attorney provided through a virtual law practice. Virtual law practice allows a client to connect personally with their attorney online and use the technology in a cost-effective and efficient manner to handle legal matters. A virtual law office may be used in conjunction with a traditional law office or may be completely web-based providing unbundled legal services, depending on what the prospective online client needs and whether it may be competently handled online or should require full-service, in-person representation.
My point: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. These Internet-based legal services companies may provide unbundled legal services, but it’s their methods of doing so that are at question, not the practice of unbundling itself. Access to justice is a huge problem in our country and unbundling legal service by licensed legal professionals provides an enormous opportunity for us to provide one solution to help with this growing problem.
Recent publications as well as state bar opinions support the unbundling of legal services which is essentially what a virtual law office provides for their clients online. Take a look at the New York Times article “A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers” by Chief Justices John T. Broderick Jr. of New Hampshire and Ronald M. George of California. Richard Granat over at the eLawyering Blog has a great post discussing this article as does Susan Cartier-Liebel on her blog. Likewise, Chuck Newton of the Third Wave blog recently wrote a positive post pointing out many of the benefits of unbundling legal services.
As someone who practices law from a virtual law office and works with other attorneys to set up virtual law practices, I will be a tad defensive on this topic because I know the close relationships that I have with my online clients. I am proud that I am able to provide them with a quality service that many of them have flat out told me would not be affordable or accessible to them if it were not handled online. I also have the ability to provide pro bono services through my virtual law office and know of other virtual law office practitioners who are working with their local legal aid and other entities to use the technology to provide increased access to justice as well as built their own successful and consumer-conscious law practices.
Accordingly, when you read criticisms of web-based legal service companies, please remember to draw the line between a virtual law office operated by a licensed legal professional and a company selling legal forms online. There may be a lot of unscrupulous practices going on out there, but it doesn’t serve the general public or the legal profession to make broad generalizations that may inhibit future innovation in the delivery of legal services using technology and thus, increased access to justice opportunities.