Two influential forces are driving attorneys and law firms to
consider delivering legal services online.
The first is the increase in our clients' expectations for more
accessible and affordable legal services through the use of
technology. The second is the changing landscape of the legal
marketplace and the need for firms to find different means of
obtaining a competitive advantage.
Larger law firms continue to downsize and consider outsourcing,
and more attorneys, many newly licensed, are opening solo and small
firm practices across the country. Virtual law practice provides a
way for the legal profession to meet the needs of the general
public for greater access to justice, while also addressing the
practice management needs of the professionals who serve the
What is virtual law practice?
Virtual law practice, one form of e-lawyering, is a professional
law practice that is located online through a secure portal and is
accessible to both the client and the attorney anywhere the parties
may access the Internet.
The key features of a secure portal are the requirements that the
client chooses a unique username and password and that the portal
uses the same high level of security that clients are accustomed to
experiencing when they conduct transactions online with their bank,
their investment service or a government entity.
The client portal allows the attorney to work with the client to
deliver legal services from the establishment of the
attorney-client relationship through to the rendering of legal
services and payment. Features within a virtual law office will
differ depending on the technology solution(s) chosen to create the
practice, as well as the structure of the firm and the goals that
the firm has decided upon for this form of practice
Some features might include: document storage; legal form and
document assembly; file, law and form libraries; online payments
and invoicing; billing and calendaring; online discussion threads
with clients and others in the firm; conflict of interest checks;
jurisdiction checks; and, other client and case management
The technology used to form a virtual law practice is software as
a service (SaaS), which is one form of cloud computing. This means
that the law office data is stored securely online by a third
party. Through the use of SaaS, transmissions between the law firm
and the clients are encrypted from end to end.
Typically, SaaS providers house their servers in multi-million
dollar data centers with the same high-level security that is
relied upon by government, banking and financial institutions. As
security updates and new features are added to an SaaS application,
those items are automatically added to the user's account, without
disruption of service and without added cost to the monthly
subscription fee for the service.
Backups of the law office data and maintenance of the technology
used to create the virtual law office are also handled, on a daily
basis, by the SaaS provider. There are many things to consider when
technology provider, however (see the link at the bottom of the
article regarding ethics concerns).
Unbundling legal services online
A law firm may integrate virtual law practice into its
traditional brick and mortar law practice, or a firm could open up
a completely Web-based practice. There will be different ethics
concerns and best practice requirements for each form of virtual
With both, however, the services offered online will be in the
nature of unbundled legal services. Unbundled legal services occur
when a law firm breaks down the tasks associated with a legal
matter and provides the client with services related to only a
portion of those tasks, rather than full completion of the matter.
Some court systems and nonprofit organizations already provide
unbundled services online to pro se individuals; see, for
example, Law Help Interactive at https://lawhelpinteractive.org.
Many of our clients are seeking out unbundled legal services from
companies selling online DIY legal forms, without attorney review
of the documents or analysis of the client's specific legal needs.
Clearly, there is an opportunity here for the legal profession to
step up to meet this public need, as well as to find ways to use
this sort of service delivery as a way to add revenue to a law
practice. Attorneys can unbundle legal services online to work with
pro se litigants, as well as to work with more traditional, paying
clients, through the client portal.
Unbundled legal services are also referred to as "limited
assistance representation," "limited scope legal services" or
"discrete task representation." The ABA Standing Committee on the
Delivery of Legal Services has a Web site
(www.abanet.org/legalservices/delivery) encouraging the provision
of unbundled legal services and assisted pro se
representation. The Web site also features a complete index of
links to state bar rules and procedures for providing unbundled
Many state bars are supportive of unbundling legal services. And,
you can find further resources on unbundling in a few places:
Massachusetts has established a self-help center that provides
guidelines and associated materials for "limited assistance
representation," or LAR, (www.mass.gov/courts/selfhelp/index.html).
A virtual law practice is able to use technology to deliver
unbundled legal services online to clients. If a firm with a
traditional law office decides to add a virtual component to its
practice, it may decide to offer the virtual law office as an
amenity to in-person, full-representation clients, as well as for
pulling in additional, online clients, the latter of whom may never
end up meeting with attorneys in person. There are a variety of
ways that a firm could structure a virtual law practice so that it
meets the needs of the attorneys wanting the added revenue stream
and flexibility while keeping consistent with the needs of the
firm's specific practice areas and client base.
Delivering legal services online is not appropriate for every
firm, or for every practice area; but, there are management
features of the back-end virtual law office that can be useful to
any firm. To list a few benefits of a virtual law practice:
- Lower overhead; eco-friendly
- Greater work/life balance and flexibility
- Ability to expand client base across jurisdictions
- Competitive advantages, including: tap into a broader market of
consumers seeking legal services as an amenity: online access for
existing clients of a traditional law practice
- Added security of hosted backups of law office data
- Customer service: Clients appreciate the convenience of 24/7
access, the ability to check on the status of their case, pay with
credit cards online and communicate with the attorney securely when
and where it is convenient for them to do so, without taking time
off of work or arranging for childcare.
- Lessen malpractice risks through the use of procedures and
checks built into the technology, such as: documented dialogue with
the client; clickwrap agreements to define scope of representation
online; conflict of interest check; jurisdiction check; online
trust accounting; IOLTA compliance; and, etc.