Going Virtual: Are Virtual Law Firms for Real?
According to Wikipedia, a virtual law firm is “a legal practice that does not have a bricks-and-mortar office, but operates from the homes or satellite offices of its lawyers, usually delivering services to clients at a distance using technological means of communication.”
If done correctly and with the right lawyers, this law firm model can work well for both clients and lawyers. Virtual law firms avoid the monthly costs of office space, conference rooms, and typical office adornments. And, because these firms have lower overhead costs, they can pass that savings onto clients. Clients receive high quality legal services at cut-rate prices.
The first recognized virtual law firm is Woolley & Co., which was founded in England in 1996. Perhaps the best known virtual firm pioneer, however, is Axiom, which was founded in 2000 in the United States. Today, Axiom is some 550 attorneys strong and operates internationally.
Of all sizes and shapes
Virtual law firms have evolved to take several different forms. The models range from solo lawyers to multi-lawyer, multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional law firms offering a full suite of services and online delivery.
Regardless of the firm model, several elements are consistent across all types of virtual law firms:
• There is no traditional office space that serves as a gathering place for the firm’s lawyers and staff
• Administrative support is also virtual
• Cloud-based technology is employed to operate the firm
• Lawyers communicate with clients via an online client portal
New opportunities to collaborate and partner with LPOs
Virtual law firms create new opportunities for lawyers to collaborate and work together. For example, the firm can add new lawyers and practice areas can be added without having to assess office and staff needs. Similarly, the virtual model opens up new avenues to engage in legal process outsourcing (Legal Process Outsourcing). Virtual firms can specialize in their chosen area of law, and to improve efficiencies and reduce costs, they can outsource process-oriented work to LPO service providers. This essentially creates a one-stop-shop for clients. Virtual law firms can handle both complex and mundane work, while focusing on the more complex work and outsourcing the rest.
One cautionary tale
Virtual law firms must follow the same ethical guidelines as brick-and-mortar law firms. In particular, virtual firms need to be careful to avoid the Unauthorized Practice of Law. The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 Working Group on Uniformity, Choice of Law, and Conflict of Interest identified as a potential problem “that it is not always clear when this virtual practice in a jurisdiction is sufficiently “systematic and continuous” to require a license in that jurisdiction.” The ABA/LPM eLawyering Task Force’s Suggested Minimum Requirements for Law Firms Delivering Legal Services Online” suggests that “a virtual firm must not violate the rules governing the unauthorized practice of law and must serve only clients who are residents of the state(s) where the firm is authorized to practice, or clients who have a matter within the state(s) where the firm is authorized to practice.” The eLawyering Task Force has further prepared guidelines for conducting a virtual practice, which emphasize the need for a secure, encrypted web site for maintaining client confidentiality in retainer agreement terms as well as online payment.