Virtual Office for Lawyers
by Tom McNichol
Small law firms (…) lack the deep pockets that have kept many of the big players afloat during the Great Recession, but they have their own advantages – chief among them, flexibility and low overhead. Small firms and solos don’t have to impress clients with fancy offices; they can let their work speak for itself. Further capitalizing on this advantage, some small law firms are setting up “virtual” law offices, creating a full-service online presence that supplements their physical office, or in some cases, eliminates it altogether. After all, why pay for real estate and parking if you can do your job without it?
The idea of practicing law on the Internet has been floating around for several years, but only lately has it become truly practical. This year when Los Angeles attorney Vinod Shankar decided to go solo, he launched a virtual law practice. Shankar’s only office is his website address (www.vshankarlaw.com).
“I wanted to go virtual because [the available] jobs weren’t that great,” says Shankar. “I wanted to try to tap into an Internet market for law for people who don’t want to go to a law firm or an office because it’s intimidating and expensive. I’ve tried to focus on a younger market for people who want to do it this way, or need to. They want it to be able to communicate with me like they communicate on Facebook.”
Shankar set up his site through a company called VLO Tech (www.vlotech.com), which offers Web-based software as a service applications for lawyers. The software handles administrative and management tasks as well as communication with clients. Each client registers through the software platform and accepts the terms and conditions of the virtual law office to receive his or her own secure home pages. From the home page, clients can request legal services, communicate with the attorney, download documents, complete online legal forms, and pay invoices. Attorneys are charged for the service on a monthly, per user basis. (Shankar pays about $200 a month.)
Another virtual law platform, called DirectLaw (www.directlaw.com), markets itself as a “virtual law firm in a box.” Attorneys pay a monthly subscription to offer their clients online services such as automated legal forms and secure payment by credit card. The DirectLaw platform costs between $99 and $299 per month for up to four attorneys, depending on the level of service required.
Virtual law practices take advantage of two current trends. The first is the increasing number of “connected” clients – many of them younger – who already use the Internet to facilitate every aspect of their lives. The computer-savvy generations that use the Internet to bank, buy stocks, view medical records, and seek a mate aren’t going to have much of a problem using the Net for their legal needs. And virtual law platforms such as VLO Tech have built-in security features that provide the same level of data encryption enjoyed by consumers who shop or bank online.
The second trend has to do with the changing business of law. For common legal issues such as wills, trusts, business incorporations, and uncontested divorces, clients increasingly want access to “unbundled,” flat-fee legal services. A virtual law office is perfectly suited to offer these services. The attorney or law firm can create a legal document or provide legal advice over the Internet for a flat fee. The client may then be responsible for actually filing the document according to the attorney’s instructions. Clients who patronize a virtual law office don’t have to take time out of their day to travel to a bricks-and-mortar office. They can log in to their secure Web page at their convenience, fill out forms, and type up questions.
Some lawyers have a virtual law office that serves as an adjunct to their physical office. Clients with relatively straightforward legal issues can have most of their needs taken care of online. Those with complex cases or who desire face-to-face communication can visit the office.
Attorneys with either kind of setup can hold an online meeting with a client by using a Web conferencing service. One such service, GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com), lets users host an online meeting with up to 15 people, sharing any software application on their computer in real time. (Prices start at $49 a month, and the company offers a free trial with unlimited usage for 30 days.)
Francine Ward, a Bay Area intellectual property lawyer, uses GoToMeeting to conduct online meetings, but she also maintains a physical office in Mill Valley.
“As long as I have a telephone and a computer, I’m set,” she says. “Part of what makes it easy for me is my area of practice. As an intellectual property lawyer, the bulk of my work is transactional work. I do contracts, I do registrations for trademarks and copyrights, I counsel clients on how to select and clear trademarks. It would be different if I had a litigation practice.”
Over the past six months, about one-third of Ward’s business has come either from her website or through social media. Ward writes a legal blog (www.francinewardblog.com) and is active on Twitter.
In the wake of the recession, she also rethought some of her pricing structures to attract clients looking for unbundled legal services.
“Last year when the economy tanked, I thought, ‘OK, I’m not about to sink here.’ I had to figure out some other way to do this because people weren’t coming to lawyers unless they absolutely had to. So I came up with another lower-cost pricing structure just for very basic contracts. If somebody wanted some more customization, they’d have to pay more, but this would be for someone who just wanted to have a lawyer take a look. It’s a nice add-on.”
Whether a virtual law practice supplements or replaces an existing law office, it can be a great way for small firms and solos to leverage their limited assets. Smartly applied, technology levels the playing field for small law firms and helps them avoid becoming a footnote in yet another story about out-of-work attorneys.