Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Starbucks Advocate

Last week I participated in the first ever twitter debate sponsored by the ABA Journal. The topic was Virtual Law Offices. I don't have a virtual office. Mine has a door, a desk, some photos of my family, and a small refrigerator. I keep some sodas in there and an occasional unfinished sandwich brought back from lunch. My colleague in the debate, does. She's also in the business of consulting with lawyers who want to start a virtual office.

A virtual office is a laptop computer. Clients purchase documents and services online, and speak with the lawyer over the phone and email. Virtual lawyers believe that virtual lawyers are in high demand and that virtual lawyering is the future. That's what manufacturers of cassettes said, too. Virtual lawyers actually tried to convince me during the debate, with a straight face, that because I have an office and use technology, that I am somewhat of a virtual lawyer, too.

My colleague in the debate, Stephanie Kimbro, is deeply involved in the virtual lawyer world. Based on my unscientific survey of the internet, she's the only credible virtual lawyer I know. She not only practices virtually, she also participates in her State Bar's Technology Committee, advocating for a type of practice that the grey hairs know nothing about.

I'm not a big fan of virtual lawyering. Stephanie could care less. My negativity on the topic is to her, an opportunity to shove articles, facts, and grounded opinions in my face. It's never personal, it's about the topic at hand. Stephanie knows that I will never be a virtual lawyer, never encourage young law school graduates to enter this type of practice, and will probably never use the services of a virtual lawyer. "So what" says Stephanie. It's not for me, and she knows that. She also knows that my opinion is just that. It's just like when someone says "I could never do what you do." "Great," I say, "more work for me." There's an appellate lawyer I know. One time I told her "I would kill myself if I had to do what you do." That was 11 years ago and she still doesn't speak to me.

I think virtual lawyering is a cheap way to practice law, and I think that lawyers are demanding virtual practices more than clients. I also think that virtual lawyers are doing a poor job trying to convince the legal community that this is the future of lawyering. I think it's a self fulfilling prophecy. I think that lawyers practice from Starbucks demeans our profession. I wish every manager at Starbucks would walk around and ask: "excuse me, I noticed you are typing a lot, (nice t-shirt by the way), are you a college student studying for finals or working on a term paper?" "Aw, shucks no, I'm representing a client as a lawyer." "OK, well this is not a law office, so can you kindly finish that cup you've been nursing for the last 2 hours and.....leave?"

I've discussed my views with Stephanie before, and enjoyed debating her last week. She has facts, stats, and opinions minus the hysteria that online lawyers show when anyone criticizes them. The hysteria is already simmering halfway into this post, with those online lawyers reading this saying "there he goes again," and taking everything personally.

What's funny is that as a criminal lawyer, I am constantly criticized: "How can you do what you do?" Sometimes I respond, sometimes I ignore it, but my criminal defense colleagues rarely see it as an opportunity to join in and help me defend myself. I don't take it personally, which is a rarity for the online lawyers today.

For online lawyers, it's different. It's all personal. Any criticism of them is an attack on them personally. The reason? Many of them are uncomfortable with where they are in their career and any naysayers cause them to think about what they really wanted to be at one time - maybe that was a practicing lawyer, in an office, in a courtroom, in a conference room negotiating a deal.

Online lawyers are either the virtual lawyers I speak of, or those former lawyers who are here to let you know that even though they no longer practice, they can help you make a lot of money. I don't have to mention them here, giving them the dearly beloved SEO they rely upon in their "profession." One claims that for $7,500 they can change your life. Another has worked with so many firms and made them so much money, that he can't even name one of them. Another practiced law for about 6 months before getting laid off and now claims that he can make you a rainmaker by teaching you how to.....use twitter.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but you are listening, you are paying, you are typing "how to make money as a lawyer" on Google and reaching them.

At last week's debate, some of these "lawyers" ran to the rescue in the debate. They were figuratively saying "don't say that!" to me. They had no facts, stats, or credible opinions. They just tried to squelch any criticism, any comments that would expose what this really is - a cheap way to practice law. These are not lawyers who can debate, argue, defend a point, they are lawyers trying to make a buck at Starbucks and believe that my opinion, written online, will have some effect. They run to support their friend and business position out of fear that a dissenting view will tank their pipe dream of wealth-by-laptop, or worse, hurt their efforts to be retained by other lawyers who are searching for the shorts and flip flop life of a law practice amongst the low-fat muffins and funky teas.

I have no consulting business on the side. Wait, actually last week I did have lunch with two young law school grads and, oh, never mind, I picked up the tab for lunch and didn't charge them for my advice.

Last week's debate didn't surprise me. As Stephanie and I began to debate, the Starbucks lawyers came out in droves. The trial lawyers? Lawyers with offices? One told me that they didn't participate much because they were busy practicing law.

I think Virtual Law offices have their place. I think it's great that a client can do a contract or will over the phone. Hopefully it is done properly and when someone says it wasn't, the virtual lawyer can virtually appear somewhere to fix it, even if that requires a real room, with a judge and opposing counsel.

I don't think any type of law practice is perfect, or perfectly safe, as the virtual lawyers try to make others believe. Don't tell me that any thing on a machine is perfectly safe. That tanks your credibility, immediately.

What I learned from this debate I only learned from Stephanie's comments, which were on point and based in fact. The others were just there to whine, scream and yell that I didn't know what I was talking about (without saying why), pimp their business model and protect their bottom line from those like me that have something different to say.

Unfortunately for the virtual lawyers, there are other lawyers who have opinions, opinions that don't help them in their quest to be left alone amongst the smell of Colombian coffee beans.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark


Christopher G. Hill said...

Interesting post Brian. I like opinions (whether I agree with them or not) grounded in thought and fact. Personally, as a construction lawyer, it would be weird not to have an office. But I, like you, see that technology and the internet can be great helps to a "brick and mortar" non-virtual law practice.

A blend seems to be the best for me.

Dave! said...

Are there *really* people out there just practicing out of Starbucks?!? You and others always use that example, but the VLO people I know mostly practice out of home offices. Of course, I practice IP primarily, so maybe it's just a practice area thing?

I can't imagine practicing out of a coffee shop and I personally haven't met a single "virtual law office" attorney who does. I would be interested in seeing some "facts, stats, and opinions minus the hysteria" from the anti-VLO side of the debate.

I'm not doubting that the Starbucks lawyer exists--and I agree that the VLO is as much (if not more) lawyer driven than client driven. But where are the stats that show that most VLOs don't have home offices, etc. and are all working from coffee shops?

Brian Tannebaum said...

Yes Dave, there are lawyers who just practice out of Starbucks. The problem with online discourse appears to be that whenever someone makes an analogy, someone is always there to think that the analogy applies to everyone. Sorry you missed the debate last week.

Dave! said...

I don't think the analogy applies to everyone, I just think the "Starbucks problem" is far less than you think it is--just like you think the "VLO" demand is driven by lawyers, not clients.

Again, I'd just like to see some statistics.

Brian Tannebaum said...


You may be right.

Josh said...

Does conducting nearly all of your client and witness interviews in the hall outside of a courtroom and spending 1/3rd of every day, if not more, communicating via email and talking on your cell phone constitute virtual lawyering . . . .? I think I might be one and not even know it!

Martin Johnson said...

Amen to everything stated by Chris Hill. A reasonable voice amidst the chaos....A blend of virtual technologies with a traditional practice is how I see the future of lawyering. I think the debate over where one hangs a shingle is far less important than what technology is being used to collaborate with clients and practice law. But that's just me...what do I know.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I just don't believe that there are attorneys practicing out of Starbucks. Are you saying they are there 8am-8pm every day? I don't buy it.

Josh said...

Anon, they aren't there all day, but as I was studying for the bar and spending nearly that much time there, I was approached by more than one (2) person who was working out of Starbucks. They go, they drink coffee, they use the free (with a $5 dollar gift card in hand) internet, and they make phone calls. It's not so surprising - many professionals operate out of Starbucks - it's just sort of stupid.