Many of my clients are located in rural areas of North Carolina. It would take them an hour to drive to “the big city” to meet with an attorney in person. However, these clients have access to the Internet and like any other segment of the population, they need access to legal services from time to time.
As a way to meet this public need, for the past three years I have used my web-based virtual law office (VLO) to provide online unbundled legal services to clients across the state of NC where I am licensed to practice law. Sometimes the work is transactional, such as drafting contracts, leases, setting up businesses or drafting estate planning documents. Other times I provide basic legal advice and guidance as my clients navigate the justice system as a pro se litigant in their small county courthouse. The public response to a web-based virtual law office as an alternative method of communicating with an attorney has been great.
The other benefit to my rural clients has been that I am able to pass along the savings of operating a virtual law practice in my fees. I provide a combination of fixed fee and billable hour and provide payment plans depending on the client and case matter. Because I work from home or wherever I feel like taking my notebook and wireless card on any given day, my law office overhead is minimal. I also have the flexibility of practicing law on my own schedule and my clients also enjoy the convenience of discussing and working on legal matters with me outside of traditional business hours.
The SaaS technology I use for my VLO allows for much more personalized communication with my clients who have their own homepages, access to their documents, online forms, calendar, billing, payments and other features. It’s a far cry from the unencrypted and unsecure email communication used by attorneys in the past to practice law remotely.
For the past year, I’ve been working with other attorneys to create virtual law practices in different states. Many of these attorneys are either located in rural locations themselves or their clients are in locations where they cannot easily come into a brick & mortar law office. One of these attorneys is providing legal services through a VLO in Alaska to remote clients. Another is providing legal services online to clients in rural areas of North Carolina. I am working with another group of attorneys to form a mid-west virtual law office that will provide web-based legal services to more Midwestern clients who are spread out in multiple jurisdictions.
The public is demanding the ability to access legal services online and they are turning to companies that do not even use licensed attorneys to review their legal documents. Or worse, they are finding legal documents online and revising them themselves rather than contacting a legal professional. A VLO is a solution to providing the public with quality legal services online either as a completely web-based VLO offering unbundled legal services or as a traditional law practice that incorporates a VLO and provides services to more remotely located clients as well as their existing clients.
While there are a number of concerns from legal professionals regarding the use of SaaS technology in law practice management, there are many benefits to both the general public and the legal professional that need to be taken into consideration. The ABA eLawyering Task Force is currently working to create malpractice guidelines for virtual law practice, and a group of legal SaaS providers is also joining together to establish standards for the industry. This is an area of law practice management that will continue to grow and evolve with the technology that is available to us.
Stephanie Kimbro, Esq. operates a VLO in a small town in NC (www.kimbrolaw.com) and is the co-founder of Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC (VLOTech) (www.vlotech.com) which sets up virtual law practices for attorneys nationwide. Kimbro teaches a virtual law practice course for Solo Practice University, a web-based educational community for legal professionals and is the recipient of the 2009 ABA Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering. She authors a Virtual Law Practice Blog at www.virtuallawpractice.org.