TECHSHOW is here. Some of the buzz this year is related to cloud computing, SaaS and web-based technologies that take aspects of law practice management online. There are a lot of terms thrown around when discussing these topics. One of them is “virtual law practice”. We are bound to hear this phrase several times during TECHSHOW in various contexts. Other terms, including VLOs, VLPs, virtual law offices, virtual law firms, online law offices, web-based or web-enabled law offices, are used to describe different methods of elawyering. However, when they are used, they are often not used to mean the actual delivery of legal services online to clients.
Elawyering is defined by Marc Lauritsen, the co-chair of the ABA’s eLawyering Task Force as
all the ways in which lawyers can do their work using the Web and associated technologies. These include new ways to communicate and collaborate with clients, prospective clients and other lawyers, produce documents, settle disputes and manage legal knowledge. Think of a lawyering verb — interview, investigate, counsel, draft, advocate, analyze, negotiate, manage and so forth — and there are corresponding electronic tools and techniques.
Check out the eLawyering Task Force’s website for more white papers and links to info about different elawyering methods.
When you ask attorneys to explain in detail what they mean when they say they have a “virtual law firm,” they may describe different combinations of elawyering. However, from firm to firm there is usually a great deal of difference in the web-based technology they are using and each firm’s purpose for that technology in the scheme of their law practice management.
So why try to limit the definition? After all, when we try to cage something in there is the risk that this discourages future innovation and development of new forms of elawyering. The key is whether the attorney is actually delivering legal services online to clients. It should matter greatly in our profession for malpractice and ethics concerns. If they are, the standards for daily use of web-based technology will be higher than if the technology is not being used to handle sensitive attorney/client data. In other words, it should matter to their clients and their state bars whether they are delivering legal services online to clients using unencrypted methods of delivery and software products without the benefit of user agreements developed for the needs of legal professionals.
A virtual law practice involves the delivery of legal services to clients securely over the Internet by way of a client portal — whether the virtual law practice is completely web-based or integrated into a brick & mortar law office where the attorneys see in-person clients as well as their online clients. Regardless of what web-based technology is used, the law firm is working with the client from the beginning of the legal representation through to the payment and rendering of legal services.
When discussing these issues, let’s be clear about what is meant by a “virtual law firm.” It may be a paper(less) law office and the technology may be used for aspects of law practice management, but it is not virtual law practice. When the practice of delivering legal services online to our clients is commonplace, as it will become in the near future, these distinctions will seem ridiculous. But for the time being, they are important to keep us all on the same page.