More virtual law firms are springing up that combine a traditional litigation practice with the features of a virtual law office. Members of these virtual firms use the online law office as a way to communicate and collaborate on case matters and to work remotely. Their clients use the client portal as a way to keep current on the status of their case, review documents, avoid numerous in-office visits and to pay their legal fees online. Some litigation practices, depending on the state bar’s rules, are foregoing the office lease and meeting with clients in shared office spaces with virtual receptionists (if you are a licensed NJ attorney, stick w/the brick & mortar expenses).
One of the questions I hear from litigation-based virtual law firms is how to handle service of process online. Most rules of procedure still require that the summons and any other accompanying documents be handed to the defendant in person at his or her residence or place of business. Different states have variations of the rule. Some require only service of process by licensed, private process servers rather than service by a court official, such as a sheriff. Some allow for electronic service of process. The states also have different forms and time deadlines for the process.
If the case is being filed in U.S. district court, the process is covered by Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For an in-depth, 2009 law review article on the topic of electronic service of process in federal court, check out: Electronic Service of Process at Home and Abroad: Allowing Domestic Electronic Service of Process in the Federal Courts, by Ronald Hedges, Kenneth Rashbaum and Adam Losey, The Federal Courts Law Review, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2009.
If you are a virtual law firm, you are more likely to be handling cases where your clients and their case matters are not geographically located in the same cities where you and your firm members are practicing law. Imagine how a multijurisdictional virtual law firm that handles litigation must comply with different states’ rules for service of process. Most states allow for service by mail if the defendant is located in another state. But what if the virtual law firm has a presence in that state in the form of a firm member who is working remotely? Or what if the firm does not have a member physically in that state but who is licensed to practice law in the state that the defendant resides in? Is service by mail allowed then? Can email or social networking sites be used after snail mail fails to work?
I’m sure many of you read about the Australian case in 2008 where the law firm had attempted to follow traditional methods of service and after those failed turned to Facebook as a means of serving the defendant. See another fun law review article on this topic: Superpoked and Served: Service of Process via Social Networking Sites, by Andriana L. Shultz, University of Richard Law Review, Volume 43, 2009.
There are a lot of arguments in favor of electronic service of process which I’m not going to get into. In 2006, the ABA Section of Science and Technology Law updated its Best Practice for Electronic Service of Process. From my reading though, e-service continues to grow in acceptance and use, but is not in every states’ rules of procedure. Many firms, even those that use technology to deliver legal services, still prefer in-person service of process. In certain cases, they may want the in-person method to also convey to the defendant a greater sense of urgency that he or she take the matter seriously. A sheriff banging on the door might send a certain message that a posting on the Facebook wall might not.
For that reason and while waiting for all court systems to get on the electronic service of process bandwagon, a virtual law practice could consider the use of a web-based process server that allows the firm to order, track and manage service of process securely online. This might be a good use of web-based technology to assist a virtual law firm in handling service of process across the country, online in a secure web-based system. I’m sure there are other process server companies out there adapting to the changes in technology, but I’ve been exploring the services offered by USA-Serve and how they might be used by a virtual law firm whether its a solo practice or a larger multijurisdictional firm. The company has a secure portal for attorneys to manage and track service of process. If you are a litigation-based virtual law practice, it might be worth checking out this cloud based service for certain cases.
Know of any other companies providing electronic service of process or that has a web-based system that firms can use to track and manage service of process across the country and internationally? How can these systems’ features be integrated into the case and client management of a virtual law office? As more litigation-based firms add virtual law offices to their services, I would expect to see this component added into the process of managing a client’s case online for use by the firm’s remote attorneys and virtual administrative assistants and paralegals.