The Future of Virtual Law Practice
The idea of "virtual law practice" is more relevant than ever in the age of the Coronavirus." Virtual law practice could become the new normal.
What is a "Virtual Law Practice"?
The idea of virtual lawyering can be traced to the early days of the Internet new law firm Web sites such as http://www.visalaw.com and http://www.mdfamilylawyer.com first appeared. In January 2000, William Paul, then president of the American Bar Association, created the ABA eLawyering, Task Force. President Paul's vision was that lawyers would be able to use the power of the Internet to serve clients of moderate means who have been priced out of the legal market.
Over time, the idea of eLawyering became associated with the concept of virtual law practice. The period between 2000 and 2008 witnessed the emergence of some virtual law firms that sought to deliver legal services online directly to clients. Some of these legal tasks may include the delivery of online legal advice, legal review of documents that have been received by the client from another party, discussions between the lawyer and the client, and the creation, assembly, and analysis of legal documents and forms. Since 2009, more law firms have incorporated the idea of "online legal services" into their law firm business models, as companies emerged that provided applications that enabled virtual law practice at low cost to the law firm.
The core definition of a "virtual law practice" proposed by the eLawyering Task Force in the Requirements is linked to the architecture of a law firm's Web site. Thus:
"The basic structure of a law firm Web site that offers legal services online requires a secure client Webspace that is accessible only with a user name and secure password. Without such a mechanism, it is difficult or impossible to comply with the rules of professional conduct that deal with UPL, client confidentiality, establishing the lawyer/client relationship, and conflict of interest issues."
In other words, the idea of virtual law practice is linked to the concept of delivering legal services online. To protect the confidentiality and security of client information, this requires a secure "client portal" accessible with a user name and password. Within the secure client portal, clients can communicate and collaborate with their lawyers online with the assurance that their transactions are secure and ethically compliant.
eLawyering can only take place within a safe Webspace. eLawyering are the tasks that a lawyer does within the "client portal" itself. These eLawyering tasks can be of many different types. Marc Lauritsen, the co-chair of the eLawyering Task Force, defined eLawyering as:
"all how lawyers can do their work using the Web and associated technologies. These include new ways to communicate and collaborate with clients, prospective clients, and other lawyers, produce documents, settle disputes, and manage legal knowledge. Think of a lawyering verb—interview, investigate, counsel, draft, advocate, analyze, negotiate, manage, and so forth—and there are similar electronic tools and techniques."
It is estimated that approximately 6 percent of solos and small law firms use a secure client portal to communicate and collaborate with their clients and deliver other legal services online. The idea of "virtual law practice" is still in its infancy.
The Market for Consumer Legal Services
The online market for consumer legal services will expand as consumers become more comfortable and prefer to work with their lawyers online. Consumers and small businesses are primarily served by solos and small law firms, which constitute eighty percent of the legal profession within the United States.
The pressures to change the patterns of delivery of legal services for consumers will increase dramatically in the next few years, as a "connected generation" comes of age.
The "connected generation," often called the Millennial Generation, are all those born since 1981 and range in age from 18-32. Approximately 87 million Americans are in this age cohort. It is larger than the Baby Boom generation, and as this generation ages, they will have the same legal problems and issues as any other generation. It is this generation that has grown up on the Internet and looks to the Internet first, before checking the Yellow Pages, reaching for a telephone, or consulting with a professional face-to-face. This generation is a generation of "digital natives" with the Internet in their DNA. They shop online, play online, learn online, bank, and invest online, and will expect their lawyers also to be online.
Law Firms Designed to Serve an Internet Savvy Generation
Law firm Web sites that are highly interactive and can serve this generation online are going to dominate the legal landscape in the decades to come. The law firms that are moving into this next stage are what we call "Web-enabled law firms" because of their commitment to using the power of the Internet to change the way they practice law by creating web sites that are highly interactive with their clients.
Internet-based legal technology can help solve the justice gap problem by enabling law firms, mostly solos and small law firms that serve consumers and small businesses, to offer affordable solutions.
By combining the power of software with the delivery of legal service, friction is reduced, the speed of delivery is increased, and because aspects of the legal service are automated, profit margins can increase. We call this kind of legal assistance," "Software-powered legal service." By combining delivery of human legal services with automated legal services and delivering these services over the Internet, economies of scale can be achieved that are not possible within a traditional person-to-person law practice.
The Future of Virtual Law Practice
In the fullness of time, almost every law firm will have the capacity to work with their clients online, and their clients will expect them to have this capacity.
The idea of "virtual law practice" will no longer be something for early adopters, but will just become part of the platform for the delivery of legal services. Every law firm, with some narrow exceptions, will become a virtual law firm. Jordon Furlong, a law practice management consultant and legal futurist, has observed that in the future platform for the delivery of legal services will be the Internet and not the physical office. When a platform changes, those who are in are out unless they adapt.
The future belongs to law firms that learn how to use Internet technology to offer legal services to clients in the way those clients expect legal services to be delivered. For the majority of clients, that will mean online delivery of legal services. Law firms that don't adapt to this reality will lose market share to lawyers and law firms that are more adaptable.
Software-powered legal services delivered over the Internet will provide the pathway for the legal profession to reinvent itself, retain its identity as a learned profession that serves society, and provide a decent living for its members.
Disclosure: I was the founder of Directlaw, one of the first virtual law platforms for solos and small law firms, but sold my interest in 2017.