This Friday I am participating in a debate on twitter regarding virtual law practices with Stephanie Kimbro, who operates a web-based virtual law office (VLO) powered by VLOTech (Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC), a company that she co-founded in 2007. Stephanie practices online from her home office or as she says "wherever I feel like working remotely that day."
In advance of this debate, Stephanie has written a blog post about the future of the legal profession.
In an effort to begin the debate here, Stephanie is completely wrong.
It's OK, Stephanie is not one of the hysterical people on social media who whines and cries tears anytime someone says something that doesn't comport with her opinion. Stephanie understands that the ability to bolster her opinion, which is completely wrong, is served by those who disagree.
That's why I agreed to this debate.
In her blog post, Stephanie makes her case, or tries at least.
She begins by saying the future of law practice is client-centric. No, it's always been client-centric to lawyers that believe their role is to serve the client. But Stephanie is specific about her title. By client-centric she means increased customer service, response time, alternative billing, online access and use of technology by the firm to cut costs and make legal services more easily obtainable and affordable.
No one can argue that in this economy, increased customer service and response time is essential in any business. Lawyers are not immune from economic downturns, and when times are tough, clients look to those lawyers who are doing everything they can to satisfy the client.
Alternative billing? This always makes me chuckle. Criminal defense lawyers have used alternative billing forever. It's called the flat fee. With the death of BigLaw and their overbilling of hours, they now call that a "value fee." This is nothing new, it's just what BigLaw never did, so we call it "alternative," as if anything BigLaw doesn't do is "alternative."
Technology? All for it. Any lawyer who doesn't have a blackberry, iPhone, or other PDA, is a moron. I'm all about scanning documents, and emailing things to clients. Client files accessible online? Sorry, not for me. Not for my criminal or Bar clients. Can't do it. A client wants a document, I'll email it to them, that's as far as I will go. My job is to protect the client and the client's right to confidentiality. Don't tell me allowing them access to their file on-line has no danger at this point in time.
But then Stephanie goes off the deep end. She envisions the end of virtual law offices:
Imagine telling the client who has enjoyed online access to the status and files of his case that he must now make in-person appointments in your office and will receive the invoice in the mail in 7-10 business days. Or imagine telling your clients who you provided flat fees for legal services that you will now be charging them by the billable hour rate and instead of a number they can budget, giving them a guestimated range they will owe you upon services rendered.
In person appointments? Invoices in the mail in 7-10 days? No more flat fees?
The virtual law office issue is about lawyers not having a physical office, it is not about clients not being able to be emailed files or invoices, or talk to their lawyer on the phone, or Skype. State Bars (some, state Bars) want lawyers to have a physical location. That is not to the exclusion of technology based practices. Sure, there is an issue of files being kept on-line, but why should we as lawyers determine how the client's file will be maintained? The client isn't entitled to a physical file of documents because some of us want to keep them on our iPads while sitting in Starbucks?
Stephanie, wrongly, believes that through the use of technology and especially through the security of virtual law practice we have much more effective communication with our clients, and wants to know why we as attorneys want to give that up?
Give what up? Rules on virtual law offices are again, not to the exclusion of technology. The sky is not falling. The "clouds" are still there. More effective communication with clients is by email and phone, not in person? Says who? These are clients hiring lawyers. Is a face to face meeting such a terrible thing?
In the end, Stephanie's point really appears to be that a virtual law office makes things easier and cheaper:
But the benefit should be that the use of technology gives us the ability to better serve our clients and the time to focus on actually solving problems for individuals rather than getting bogged down in administrative tasks that we later have to find ways to cover in our legal fees.
Stephanie relates the prohibition of virtual law practices as creating "less customer service." I don't see it. I don't buy it. I think that advocates for virtual law offices just want to do what they want, claim it benefits the clients, when in reality it's really for the convenience of the lawyer. The lawyer doesn't have to pay rent, doesn't have to provide a place to meet with the client, and can work out of their trunk. While some clients appreciate this in terms of fees, if the virtual crowd wants state Bars to come into their 21st century of law practice, they need to stop whining and get on a Bar committee and open their mouth.
Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.