Virtual Law Practice or Virtual Law Office, is an online law practice that exists through a secure log-in portal and can be accessed by both clients and attorneys anywhere an internet connection is available. In contrast to a traditional law practice, a Virtual Law Practice allows attorneys and clients to communicate securely over the internet, download or upload documents, and conduct other business normally conducted face-to-face over the internet.
A virtual law firm is a legal practice that does not have a bricks-and-mortar office, but operates from the homes or satellite offices of its lawyers, usually delivering services to clients at a distance using technological means of communication. Most have a central function responsible for the accounting and administrative side of the practice. Virtual law firms are formed and regulated in the same way as traditional law firms, but their lawyers may be self-employed consultants rather than partners or employees.
In a profession know historically resistant to change. The concept of a virtual law firm sounds mystical or fake, the idea of altering the way business is done can be difficult for some Orthodox Lawyers to swallow. Peeling away the layers, however, reveals that there is nothing Mythical or Fake about a virtual law firm. It is simply a fancy way of labeling two or more lawyers who collaborate and recognize that innovation should play a role in serving clients. If client expectations change, law firm models should follow. Virtual Law Practices have emerged in various iterations, each of which is driven by the practice’s client base. The models range from solo practitioners delivering services online to large firms operating outside a traditional bricks-and-mortar setting. The concepts are limited only by the creativity of those involved.
The main benefit of a virtual law office to the client is convenience and accessibility to the lawyer. The unbundled legal services of a Virtual Law Office can also save clients a considerable amount of money by allowing them to handle much of the work surrounding their legal consultation themselves, with an attorney guiding them and drafting paperwork (known as “unbundling”) In turn, an attorney running a Virtual Law Office will have more flexible work hours and be able to serve a much larger client base over the internet. They will also save significant overhead related to running a practice (such as office rent, paper, and assisting staff). With the rapid expansion of technology and internet use, lawyers who are able to bend their practice to serve this client base may find themselves more successful.
According to earlier sources, a virtual law firm has the following characteristics:
Has a stable core group of attorneys;
Operates under one legal entity, such as a partnership or a proprietorship.
Has established collaborative relationships with other, specialized law firms that possess expertise that’s occasionally needed;
Is glued together with appropriate computer and telecommunications technology such as project management software or a Virtual Law Office (VLO)
Tends to have low overhead because of the ability of some or all attorneys to work from home or a low cost remote office.
Expands and reduces personnel as needed.
Virtual firms can be full service and handle the entire range of existing practice areas, from estate planning to criminal defense to business matters such as mergers and acquisitions and complex litigation. From the client’s perspective, the work product completed does not look different than that produced by a traditional firm. It is how the firm operates in the background that differs. This is where setting up the right structure and team is crucial.
Multi-lawyer firms can now practice in a distributed manner. The firms have centralized meeting space for attorney or client meetings, but the lawyers practice from home or in other locations that make the most sense to each lawyer. Virtual assistants are used for administrative support. Cloud-based practice management systems enable the lawyers to collaborate on cases and to have all information related to the matter at their fingertips—whether they are at a home office or traveling on the other side of the world.
The advent of technology used in virtual law firms such as project management software, Virtual Law Offices and cloud computing have made it far easier for legal practices to save and manage data across geographic locations securely and efficiently and to communicate with clients at a distance, so that proximity to the client, or of the lawyers to each other in an office, has become far less important.
The virtual law firm has also come to be associated with lower prices, as they generally operate with lower overheads than traditional law firms. Lawyers find they can bill fewer hours but still make more money via a virtual firm because of the lower overheads.
e-Lawyering and the Virtual Law Office
The first recorded virtual law firm was "Woolley & Co" set up in 1996 in England by Andrew Woolley. The term became more clearly defined in 2004 in an article written by Joe Kashi defining exactly what it meant to be a virtual law firm. Virtual law firms are also often referred to as “cloud-based law firms”. The concept has since spread globally and is finding favour with clients seeking higher quality service, value, and mobility.
More recently, the concept of the virtual law firm has been associated with the term, "e-Lawyering" referring to a law firm that delivers legal services online, either directly to consumers through their law firm websites or through legal matching platforms. The American Bar Association has released a statement on minimum requirements for law firms delivering legal service online. The guidelines equate the concept of "e-Lawyering" with the Virtual Practice of Law and the concept of the virtual law firm. According to the American Bar Association guidelines, e-Lawyering or Virtual Law Practice refers specifically to the delivery of legal services online through a section of a law firm's website that is a known as a secure "client portal." Under this definition, a "Virtual Law Firm" is not simply a lawyer who does not have a physical office and communicates with clients by email. Instead, the law firm must have a secure section of its website where a client can log in with a unique user name and password.
The purpose of the e-Lawyering Task Force minimum requirements is to provide guidance to attorneys who wish to deliver legal services online on how to comply with the professional rules of conduct that govern law practice in each U.S. state. Conducting business through a log-in portal is different from conducting business over email, as the log-in portal is required to be secure and must adhere to strict regulations and standards. A completely virtual law office will conduct all business online, while some small practices choose to integrate a Virtual Law Office log-in portal to provide more options to their clients.
The features offered by a Virtual Law Office depend on the particular vendor, but basic features centre around a securely hosted, web-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) application that stores documents as part of a cloud computing system. By storing documents and information on an external server and allowing log-in through a secure, encrypted portal, documents can be accessed and shared by client and attorney. A Virtual Law Office allows clients and their attorneys to message and communicate securely, schedule appointments online, and upload and download documents. Attorneys running a Virtual Law Office can also sync their firm’s calendars, sell documents online, and use a “virtual receptionist” service to handle administrative tasks. Attorneys also save on paper and printing costs by providing documents online, and both parties can access the Virtual Law Office portal at any time of day.
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