Virtual law firm
A virtual law firm is a legal practice that does not have a bricks-and-mortar office, but operates from the homes or satellite offices of its lawyers, usually delivering services to clients at a distance using technological means of communication. Most have a central function responsible for the accounting and administrative side of the practice. Virtual law firms are formed and regulated in the same way as traditional law firms, but their lawyers may be self-employed consultants rather than partners or employees.
The first recorded virtual law firm was "Woolley & Co" set up in 1996 in England by Andrew Woolley. The term became more clearly defined in 2004 in an article written by Joe Kashi defining exactly what it meant to be a virtual law firm. Virtual law firms are also often referred to as “cloud-based law firms”. In 2002, the largest cloud-based law firm in the United States, FisherBroyles, LLP, was formed. As of 2014, FisherBroyles has over 100 partners and owns the registered marks “Law Firm 2.0” and “Next Generation Law Firm”.  In 2005, two other virtual law firms were formed in the United States: Virtual Law Partners and Rimon P.C. The concept has since spread globally and is finding favour with clients seeking higher quality service, value, and mobility.
According to earlier sources, a virtual law firm has the following characteristics:
- Has a stable core group of attorneys;
- Operates under one legal entity, such as a partnership or a proprietorship.
- Has established collaborative relationships with other, specialized law firms that possess expertise that’s occasionally needed;
- Is glued together with appropriate computer and telecommunications technology such as project management software or a Virtual Law Office (VLO)
- Tends to have low overhead because of the ability of some or all attorneys to work from home or a low cost remote office.
- Expands and reduces personnel as needed.
The advent of technology used in virtual law firms such as project management software, Virtual Law Offices and cloud computing have made it far easier for legal practices to save and manage data across geographic locations securely and efficiently and to communicate with clients at a distance, so that proximity to the client, or of the lawyers to each other in an office, has become far less important.
The virtual law firm has also come to be associated with lower prices, as they generally operate with lower overheads than traditional law firms. Lawyers find they can bill fewer hours but still make more money via a virtual firm because of the lower overheads.
Virtual law firms frequently have only senior lawyers, capable of working without much day-to-day supervision, unlike the traditional large law firm with its hierarchy of partners, associates and trainees. Many clients see a benefit in having their work done personally by an experienced lawyer, rather than having it delegated to a junior and then checked by a partner.
There are also environmental benefits to virtual law firms, many which operate as paperless offices in contrast to the traditional law firm with its rooms full of filing cabinets.
eLawyering and the Virtual Law Office
More recently, the concept of the virtual law firm has been associated with the term, "eLawyering" referring to a law firm that delivers legal services online, either directly to consumers through their law firm websites or through legal matching platforms. The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association has released a statement on minimum requirements for law firms delivering legal service online. The guidelines equate the concept of "eLawyering" with the virtual practice of law and the concept of the virtual law firm. According to the American Bar Association guidelines, eLawyering or virtual law practice refers specifically to the delivery of legal services online through a section of a law firm's website that is a known as a secure "client portal." Under this definition, a "virtual law firm" is not simply a lawyer who does not have a physical office and communicates with clients by email. Instead, the law firm must have a secure section of its website where a client can log in with a unique user name and password.
The purpose of the eLawyering Task Force minimum requirements is to provide guidance to attorneys who wish to deliver legal services online on how to comply with the professional rules of conduct that govern law practice in each U.S. state. Conducting business through a log-in portal is different from conducting business over email, as the log-in portal is required to be secure and must adhere to strict regulations and standards. A completely virtual law office will conduct all business online, while some small practices choose to integrate a VLO log-in portal to provide more options to their clients.
A Virtual Law Office, or VLO, is an online law practice that exists through a secure log-in portal and can be accessed by both client and attorney anywhere an internet connection is available. In contrast to a traditional law practice, a VLO allows attorneys and clients to communicate securely over the internet, download or upload documents, and conduct other business normally conducted face-to-face over the internet.
The features offered by a virtual law office depend on the particular vendor, but basic features centre around a securely hosted, web-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) application that stores documents as part of a cloud computing system. By storing documents and information on an external server and allowing log-in through a secure, encrypted portal, documents can be accessed and shared by client and attorney.
A VLO allows clients and their attorneys to message and communicate securely, schedule appointments online, and upload and download documents. Attorneys running a VLO can also sync their firm’s calendars, sell documents online, and use a “virtual receptionist” service to handle administrative tasks. Attorneys also save on paper and printing costs by providing documents online, and both parties can access the VLO portal at any time of day.
The main benefit of a virtual law office to the client is convenience and accessibility to the lawyer. The unbundled legal services of a VLO can also save clients a considerable amount of money by allowing them to handle much of the work surrounding their legal consultation themselves, with an attorney guiding them and drafting paperwork (known as “unbundling”). In turn, an attorney running a VLO will have more flexible work hours and be able to serve a much larger client base over the internet. They will also save significant overhead related to running a practice (such as office rent, paper, and assisting staff). With the rapid expansion of technology and internet use, lawyers who are able to bend their practice to serve this client base may find themselves more successful.
By 2014, there are at least 15 virtual law firms in the United States with more than 5 members and even more in Britain. An association of virtual law firms is being formed, Virtual Law Firm Association International http://vlfai.com/ so that interested parties can exchange information and promote the business model.
- Laver, Nicola, "Virtual Law Firms Thrive in the Downturn", Law Society Gazette 23 July 2009
- Boyall, Sue, "Free Range", Solicitors Journal, June 2011
- Kashi, Joe, "Building a Virtual Law Firm: Changes and Opportunities", Law Practice Today, January, 2004
- Pacific Business News
- Boye, Will, "Law Firms Break From Traditional Model", Charlotte Business Journal, October 2010
- Website of Excello Law (retrieved 14 April 2012)
- Kimbro, Esq., Stephanie. "Practicing Law Online: Creating a Web-Based Virtual Law Office". Retrieved 19 August 2011.
- Legal Web Experts. "Virtual Law Office Integration". Retrieved 19 August 2011.
- Kimbro, Esq., Stephanie. "Serving the DIY Client: A Guide to Unbundling Legal Services for the Private Practitioner". Retrieved 19 August 2011.
- Advantages of virtual law firms for individual lawyers
- Tamblyn, George; the Rise of the Virtual Law Firm, Washington State Bar News, March 2012. http://www.advocateslg.com/attorneys/tamblyn/wsb_virtual_firm.pdf