In the early 1800s, textile artisans protested against the proliferation of new technology--specifically, mechanized looms. (1) Despite their protests, the new technology came and workers had to retool, adapt, and embrace the invention. Similarly, over the last several years, lawyers have had to continuously adapt to new technology. The virtual law office is one advance that lawyers can capitalize on by meeting modern marketplace demands for unbundled legal services.
Operating a virtual law office evokes images of practicing law from the beach, or from the top of a mountain, or from a yacht off the Italian coast. And these activities might be some of the perks of a virtual law firm. However, specific malpractice risks and increased ease of violating the rules of professional responsibility accompany those benefits. Each law firm that uses technology to connect with clients must embrace and thoroughly utilize the technology. Although technology can create problems, the proper use of that same technology can mitigate those problems.
Understanding a Virtual Law Practice: Using Technology to Communicate
In general, a virtual office is one involving a "computer-simulated environment, accessible by multiple users via the Internet." (2) That definition covers any virtual office. Translated to the legal context, it logically follows that a virtual law practice is one that relies on technology-assisted communication to provide legal services.
In a 2013 American Bar Association survey, around 5 percent of all lawyers--and 7 percent of solo practitioners--stated that they operate a purely virtual law practice. (3) Although the number has declined slightly since 2012, (4) that study refers to a pure virtual law practice. Many more lawyers likely practice in a quasi-virtual environment, using varying degrees of technology to facilitate communication. Thus, both the pure-virtualists and the quasi-virtualists can benefit from understanding how technology can help.
Many authors describe a virtual law office as one where the client can "have access to the firm's lawyers, communications and documents related to their legal issues through a password protected and secure web space." (5) The virtual law firm allows lawyers to share information with clients in an asynchronous manner, meaning that the lawyer and the client do not have to be together at the same time to convey information. The technology facilitates communication, even when the lawyer does not physically meet with the client.
Any service in which clients log in to view information functions as a virtual office. Simple Google searches for "virtual office software" or "client portal software" show samplings of the numerous software vendors that offer solutions, many of which are cloud-based. Taking a virtual law office to its most extreme, some lawyers use a software program called Second Life (6) to create a virtual law office using a video game-like interface. On Second Life, "a virtual office is essentially a three-dimensional space in the virtual world that replicates a real-world office ... [including] a virtual conference table, a seating area, [and] a bookshelf stocked with virtual federal reporters." (7) In this virtual world, clients and lawyers interact using avatars. And these virtual spaces lead to real world gains: One attorney opened a law office on Second Life, allowing him to acquire "some real-world clients, billing approximately $20,000 in legal fees as a result." (8)
Benefits to the Client--Unbundled Legal Services
The last few years have seen "shrinking demand by paying clients for expensive legal services." Developments in technology, however, have created opportunities for "efficient software and low-cost delivery of legal services." (9) In fact, the majority of online legal services today come as unbundled legal services, in which clients select various lawyers for different tasks or transactions. (10)
To meet this marketplace demand, a virtual law office can help lawyers provide these legal services. By using technology to facilitate communication, clients can more easily obtain legal advice, one piece at a time. This method of delivering client services supports the...