The Rise of Virtual Law Practices and “E-Lawyering”
In order to stay competitive, today’s lawyers must be able to look to the future while also understanding the lessons of the past. In the modern legal world, this requires a clear understanding of how technology and the all-encompassing nature of the internet have changed the face of legal practice. Specifically, in recent years the field has seen significant growth in virtual law practices. This push towards “e-lawyering” is something that today’s legal professionals will have to contend with as the internet grows even more in its use.
What Is Virtual Lawyering?
Virtual lawyering is a form of legal practice that uses web-based tools to interact with clients. According to the ABA Legal Technology Survey Report as reported by MyCase, 52 percent of virtual practices have no brick-and-mortar office, and 40 percent report to having minimal in-persona contact with clients. These practices are shifting their primary business model towards one that is handled primarily online.
According to the American Bar Association, these virtual firms have several key features, which are:
- -The use of cloud-based technology to run the firm.
- -Working outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar office.
- -Using a virtual assistant for administrative tasks.
- -Using an online client portal for client communication and delivery of legal services.
While there is some room for variation, such as a brick-and-mortar practice that offers some services in a virtual environment, these four components seem to be common to the virtual firm.
This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. In 2006, the American Bar Association created the eLawyering Task Force, giving the group the job of defining the phenomenon and creating best practices for lawyers entering into the eLawyering field. As more and more clients are discovering the potential benefits of this field, lawyers can expect to see a greater demand for these services.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Virtual Law Practice
Virtual lawyering has a number of benefits, both for the lawyer and for the client. Most clients turn to these services in hopes of saving money. Because the lawyer is able to lessen the overhead for running a firm, it’s possible for the firm to offer services at a lower rate. Certain types of legal services, like family law and estate planning, lend themselves well to this sort of virtual arrangement, and because these cases have many similarities from one client to the next, a lower cost of service is possible.
Lawyers benefit from the more flexible nature of a virtual practice. A young lawyer who has family at home may not want to put in the grueling hours required at a large law firm, but can use a virtual practice to continue to practice law while enjoying more time with family at home.
With a virtual firm, a lawyer would have the freedom to move to another location without losing an entire client list, even traveling overseas while maintaining an active practice. For instance, Americanlawyer.com reports on the firm Fisher Broyles, a 14 year old law firm that employs nearly 200 lawyers. In October of 2016, Kevin Broyles projected revenues to reach between 50 and 70 million in the next year if the firm continued to be as successful as it had been up to that point.
With no brick and mortar offices, the firm is made up of lawyers who are spread across the country (at the time the article was written, the lawyers were located in 19 areas of the country) working from their homes or other self-chosen locations. Though it isn’t easy to build such a large and successful virtual operation, the benefits are great, according to the article: “Lawyers keep a much higher percentage of their billings and have the opportunity to create a better work-life balance. Clients, meanwhile, pay significantly lower rates. It seems like a winning deal for everyone.”
Lawyers are also able to use virtual practices to extend their reach to markets that would not be able to travel to their brick-and-mortar location. This includes an international reach, which can be critical for lawyers practicing in fields like immigration law.
All of these benefits paint a pretty picture of virtual lawyering, but there are some drawbacks as well. A lack of face-to-face interaction with clients can take away the personal attention many lawyers pride themselves in. It’s much easier for a client to become simply another number when the lawyer is hiding behind a computer screen. Also, the 24/7 nature of the Internet can create unreasonable demands on a busy virtual firm.
The Inherent Risk of eLawyering
In spite of the benefits, eLawyering is not a perfect solution. There are risks and drawbacks to this new structure as well.
One risk that both client and lawyer need to understand is the risk common to all cyber businesses. Even the most secure website, chat room and messaging system is vulnerable to hacking. For highly sensitive cases, virtual lawyering is not the most secure option. For example, in 2016, three cybercriminals were caught hacking into two large U.S. law firms to access information about pending mergers and acquisitions. They used this information to make trades that resulted in millions of dollars in profits. Clearly, all law firms are susceptible to hacking – including brick-and-mortar firms that use technology in their casework. However, because all work is done via the internet, eLawyering inherently carries more risk. Using secure law practice management software that has client portals can help lessen some of this risk.
Finally, lawyers must be careful to avoid disclosing confidential communication unintentionally, which is quite easy to do in a virtual environment. Email, public chat rooms and instant messaging programs can be visible to others without the right encryption and security protocols. Even edits in word-processing programs or the metadata in an Internet search can be used to gather confidential information that should be protected.
Is eLawyering the answer to staying competitive in the modern legal field? For some lawyers, it might be. But before you assume that setting up a virtual firm will mean you can practice law while sipping drinks on the beach, remember that there is quite a bit of work that goes into setting up any law firm, virtual or not, in order to operate legally and ethically.
Foreign Legal Consultants and eLawyering
One aspect of eLawyering that deserves mention is the increased reliance on foreign legal consultants to help with legal services. A foreign legal consultant is an attorney or counselor licensed in another country who has received recognition from a U.S.-based state bar association. This allows these attorneys to practice law in a limited manner in the United States. By outsourcing some of their services to these foreign legal consultants, American lawyers can help lower their cost of services as they seek to remain competitive.
Technology has fundamentally changed the legal field in a number of ways. Its impact is felt in legal education as well, with online law degrees growing in popularity. If you’re interested in advancing your law career or desire to add continuing education to your existing portfolio, consider the flexibility of an online LL.M. degree from USC Gould School of Law.
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