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Commentary: How to be a ‘virtually’ successful lawyer

A consulting colleague of mine recently observed that she believes too many lawyers are far behind the times; she said they don’t use the Internet for research or marketing and many don’t even use e-mail.

Of course, few if any professions are more tradition-bound than the law and change can come slowly to lawyers. Yet by the same token, some parts of our profession are undergoing a true revolution best described as a virtual law practice, in which lawyer, staff and clients interact primarily through the Internet.

For sole practitioners, this typically involves practicing from home with minimal expenditures on physical office space; contact with clients or professional colleagues is largely by e-mail, Internet portal or telephone; and staff support often comes from online “virtual assistants” at another remote location.

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct contain plenty of prohibitions (particularly in Rule 7.3, “Direct Contact with Prospective Clients”) about using the Internet to solicit business. However, there would seem to be no formal ethical prohibition against having a virtual office.

In fact the eLawyering Task Force of the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section has drafted guidelines for conducting a virtual law practice. These, however, primarily emphasize the need for a secure, encrypted Web site for maintaining client confidentiality rather than offering effective guidance on how to conduct such a practice.

Perhaps the fundamental principal to be observed is that a virtual law office or law practice is acceptable, but a virtual lawyer is not.

The attractions of a virtual office must be balanced by awareness of their limitations. Value is determined by the client, not the lawyer, but the lawyer must educate the client about “value.” If the client does not recognize and agree to this value, the result can be misunderstanding and miscommunication, with a malpractice suit as the unfortunate ultimate result.

The key, then, to avoiding ethics problems in a successful virtual practice is to fulfill all ethical requirements while conveying the value of the arrangement to the client.

If lawyers are perceived as inaccessible, fees become an issue and client complaints result. Clients may be more inclined to flexibility about where a solo practices if they have the assurance that they can always get in touch when they need to. However, to emphasize again, virtual offices may be acceptable, but virtual lawyers are not. Cost efficiency will not outweigh the negatives of inaccessibility.

The bottom line on whether a virtual office makes sense is whether it accommodates client service and client communication. The flexibility offered by voicemail, e-mail and other electronic tools is real, but it can become dangerous when used as a replacement for client contact.

A major differentiating factor for most clients is the “care and feeding” offered by lawyers. Nothing should be allowed to disrupt the means by which the lawyer learns the intent, desires and wants of the client. No matter what technology makes possible, it is not the answer if it makes life more difficult for the client.

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