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So You Want to Be a Virtual Lawyer?

“The concept of the virtual practice is practicing law using a different business structure prone to using more technology and flexibility,” says Ohio-based attorney Chad Burton.

Approximately five years ago, Burton left the brick and mortar firm where he had practiced law for six years to embark on a virtual legal career. That experience taught him that lawyers are sorely in need of direction and assistance as to how to utilize technology and its accoutrements to represent clients in a more cost-effective and efficient manner. In 2015, that led him to found Curo Legal, a technology consulting agency for law firms.

Meanwhile, it is no stretch of the imagination to describe attorney Richard S. Granat as the Father of Virtual Lawyering. That’s because in the year 2000, Granat was among the first attorneys in the United States to embrace virtual lawyering as an avenue for providing legal representation to those with limited access to competent legal counsel.

Both men agree that one of the most favorable characteristics of virtual lawyering is its cost-effectiveness. An attorney who needn’t pay office rent, utilities, parking and the countless incidental costs associated with maintaining a permanent office can pass on those savings to clients.

That reality is of paramount importance to the 80% of the American population that cannot afford to hire an attorney for civil representation. While the Constitution allows for a person charged with a crime to be represented by a court-appointed attorney, if they can’t afford one on their own, that right does not extend to civil matters such as divorce or contractual disputes.

Defining a Virtual Law Practice

Granat’s definition of a virtual law practice goes beyond merely an attorney who utilizes technology to complete his or her work, whether that means e-filing or communicating with opposing counsel or a client. Rather, he says, virtual lawyering is “the capacity to work with clients online in an ethically compliant way.”

In order to meet that threshold, a virtual lawyer needs to ensure he or she utilizes a secure client portal. That software allows clients to log into a protected website associated with the lawyer to accomplish a variety of tasks, such as communicating with their attorney, completing online forms and reading information or articles pertinent to their legal needs.

When an attorney uses “the Internet as a platform for the performance of legal services,” they are on their way to practicing virtually, Granat says. Burton decided to formally establish a virtual firm when he realized that despite having a brick and mortar location for his small law practice, he hardly utilized the space. “Everything I was doing was in the clouds,” he says.

That led him to develop a virtual law firm with attorneys who were licensed in Ohio but living in another jurisdiction where they were also licensed. By casting his network of attorneys to this wider group of lawyers, he was able to attract a group of lawyers with a broad range of experience.

Pros and Cons

Both lawyers agree that clients usually save money when they hire a virtual attorney. For one thing, the virtual attorney has less overhead to contend with and generally passes those savings on to clients. Another benefit for clients is that a virtual relationship is usually more amenable to flexible fee arrangements, Burton says.

Communication between the attorney and client might also benefit from an online relationship. “The client is likely to have better communication with their attorney because the lawyer has adopted the technology needed to practice law that way,” Burton says.

Virtual lawyers are also equipped to reach the 80% of the American population underserved by the legal profession, Granat says. That means there is a huge market for solo and small firm lawyers to serve. “Too many lawyers are chasing the 20%” of clients at the top of the totem pole who are generally represented by Big Firms, he says.

In fact, finding a way to provide legal representation to that huge chunk of Americans who can’t afford Big Firm fees is “the future of solo and small law firms,” Granat says. Those big firms have already perfected the online portal and client experience, and it’s time for the solo and small firm practitioner to catch up, he suggests. Virtual lawyering is the answer.

Certainly, one aspect of practicing virtually is there is little or no face-to-face interaction between the attorney and client, so Granat cautions it is challenging for an attorney to go from anonymity in a community and online to a true virtual lawyer. “It’s very difficult for a solo or small firm to develop a purely virtual law firm without any person-to-person interaction. Most solos and small firms will find it a challenge to rank high in the search engines," he says. "Without visibility in the search engines, they get no traffic, no leads and no conversions to clients. It makes more sense to extend a well-earned personal brand developed in a community with an online delivery capability.” 

Steps to Take

In Granat’s world, the path to becoming a true virtual attorney involves utilizing technology to create a secure portal for the lawyer and client to interact and exchange information pertaining to a case. That’s why he founded Direct Law, a site that sells software designed to empower the attorney to become more profitable and productive. In other words, “Direct Law is a platform for the performance of legal services,” Granat says.

Today’s client expects to be able to communicate with their lawyer 24/7. If that isn’t happening, it’s less likely the attorney will retain their case load. Moreover, a lawyer will not attract new business if their website is static and not useful. “If your web site gets no traffic, you get no leads. If you get no leads, you get no clients,” says Granat. And, he says, if the website does not afford the client the ability to communicate quickly with their legal counsel, the likelihood of that person hiring the lawyer decreases exponentially.

In fact, he suggests, “the average lawyer does not know how to market their law firm to get hits [on their website]. But we offer the technology and tools that add more functionality and productivity to a website.”

“Lawyers need to think about how to incorporate the online experience to impact and improve tshe client experience,” Granat says.

That doesn’t mean Granat thinks every type of law practice lends itself to being run virtually. For example, a criminal defense practice that relies on face-to-face meetings between the attorney and client is less amenable to an online existence, although certainly some information can be exchanged that way. A legal specialty that is form-intensive, such as a bankruptcy practice, is far better suited for a virtual practice, Granat say.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

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