Technology empowers many industries and businesses, and the legal field in not immune to it, as virtual law firms today extend their services beyond geographical borders.
Developments in technology have spawned a variety of changes in many fields and industries to improve productivity and create business models that are more competitive than traditional business practices.
When it comes to operation, a virtual law office is a still a legal practice. The difference is that it does not have a physical office. It can operate from the home of a lawyer. But a firm that has satellite offices can have their lawyers deliver their services to clients who are located far from the law office and often conduct business using modern communication methods. A virtual law firm typically has a central office that does the administrative and accounting side of the business. The establishment and the regulations that apply to the law practice of a virtual law firm are similar to that of a traditional law firm. However, the lawyers working in a virtual law office may be consultants who are self-employed. They are seldom employees or partners in the firm.
Trivia: The first virtual law firm was established in Stratford, England in 1996 by Andrew Woolley or Woolley & Company.
About 800 lawyers were working in virtual law firms in the UK by 2017. The data available for the U.S. says that about 15 virtual law offices with five or more members were operating in the U.S. in 2014.
Technology and concept
The virtual law firms typically operate digitally using cloud-based technology, with most of them literally not having a physical office. It's a good option for a start-up company and solo practices though because they do not have to put up much capital to start their law practice.
Features of a virtual law firm
In the early days, here were the features of a virtual law office:
- It often had a stable primary group of lawyers.
- It operated as a single entity, either as a proprietorship or partnership.
- It collaborated with law firms with specific specialties.
- It used robust telecommunications and computer technology such as a virtual law office software or a project management program.
- It typically had a very low overhead as the attorneys could work from a remote office with cheaper rent or from home.
- It can increased or reduced its staff as needed.
But since the time a virtual office was established many things have changed and several regulations have been passed regarding the operation of law firms, and in effect, virtual law firms.
In the United States, the virtual law firm concept is linked to e-lawyering. This means that the legal services are delivered online, either directly to the clients or by using the website of a law firm that has physical offices.
Even without a physical office, the legal practice of a virtual law firm is still subject to regulations. The American Bar Association issued the minimum requirements for the online delivery of legal services.
The American Bar Association states that a virtual law practice or e-lawyering should operate through a part of the website of the law firm, which has to be a secure portal for the clients. This means that a virtual law office should be connected to a law firm, and not a practice that operates independently.
Under the American Bar Association guideline, the "virtual" aspect in the virtual law firm means that it's an extension of the legal practice that is done digitally, with the law firm providing a secure portal where clients can create an account to enable them to consult or discuss legal matters with their lawyers through digital communication, instead of face-to-face meetings.
This means that law firms can have clients that are geographically distant from their base of operation. In essence, it makes it easier for law firms to accept more clients without spending too much time traveling for meetings and consultations. They can have more time to focus on the client and their needs instead of wasting time on the road.
Some of the cases handled by lawyers are very sensitive and privacy and security are important, especially when conducting business online. Thus, the United States has an e-lawyering task force to ensure the compliance of law firms that wish to extend their legal services to more people by creating a virtual law office. The task force provides a set of guidelines to operate a virtual office. Some of the guidelines include compliance with the professional rules of conduct when practicing law in each state in the U.S. The virtual office portal should be very secure and should follow the strict standards and regulations governing the operation of a law firm. The virtual law office should conduct all legal business online. Smaller practices have the option to use a virtual law office software that can give their clients more options.
The software is typically a web-based SaaS application (software-as-a-service) that is able to store documents in the cloud. With the system, clients and attorneys can upload and download documents securely from an external server.
Can you say that there are advantages in operating a virtual law firm?
Given that you cannot operate a virtual law office as a single or detached unit according to the regulations of the American Bar Association, it seems moot to check the differences between a virtual and a traditional law office. Still, you can say that there are advantages to the law firm when it has a virtual law office as well as a traditional one.
For one thing, the increase in overhead cost is minimal, as the firm will be investing in more communication tools and purchase a virtual law office software. However, the rent for office space will remain the same. The company will save on printing pages and pages of documents, investing in more filing cabinets and using the fax machine. Rental of a cloud-based server and document repository is minimal. Moreover, there is no maintenance or IT costs.
Client communication improves as lawyers are able to meet with their clients digitally. They can spend more time to discuss matters, share or work on documents simultaneously and have more flexibility with their schedules. This means that client service becomes even better.
Collaborating with colleagues in documents and cases becomes faster. They can confer with other lawyers without leaving their desks and access documents in a more secure environment. When you are handling printed documents, the chances of them falling in the wrong hands are higher. In a virtual and secure environment, it is possible to limit the access to sensitive documents. Since the files are centrally organized, it is easier to find the exact files needed for the discussion. With a project management tool, the collaborative work becomes more efficient, as you can track the progress, set tasks and deadlines and manage your work calendar better.
Having a virtual law office offers you greater mobility. Many lawyers are always pressed for time and going back to the office to retrieve documents is not only a hassle but wastes more time. With a virtual office, the lawyers who are already outside the office can still access the most updated files they need online. They can study, prepare or make changes on documents quickly, which increases the billable hours and the company's revenue.
A virtual law office makes you competitive, client wise and profit wise. You can refine the way you work, spend more time with clients, deliver legal services faster and improve your financial performance. It also allows you to offer more legal services and serve clients that are geographically distant from you. You can offer your services to younger clients who are more used to conducting business online. They understand and appreciate the convenience of using online services.
It translates to expanding your services and your business. You will be able to respond to your clients' needs faster.
While you will also appreciate the advantages and benefits of having a virtual law office, it is important to understand that you still have to work harder. You have to develop better client service techniques. It might be easy to get and handle clients online, but building a relationship with them might be difficult. A client for legal services typically relies on the lawyer for support, so you have to learn the techniques to earn their trust.
You have to provide training to your staff who will handle the virtual law office. It takes time to learn the program and become adept at operating the business virtually.
Allow subject matter experts to handle special projects
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