A virtual law practice is a law firm that provides a web-based environment where the client can communicate with their attorney and access legal services securely online. Some services may be provided by the attorney, such as legal advice. Other legal services, such as web-enabled document automation, combine a digital application with the skills of the lawyer.
An attorney with a traditional law office may operate a virtual law practice as an extension of their office-based physical practice, or a virtual law practice may be online without physical constraints. In both cases, the attorney may use some virtual lawyering technologies and more traditional skills.
Whatever the configuration of the particular law practice, to offer legal services, communicate, and collaborate with clients over the Internet, the law firm must have a “secure client portal.” Incorporation a client portal into a law firm’s website is the core requirement of a “virtual law practice”.
Resource: PodCast from Florida Bar: What it Really Means to be a Virtual Lawyer.
See ABA Journal Article, March, 2017: Granat, Really Virtual: Putting a practice online means access, efficiency, and upkeep.
The “Client Portal” concept
A virtual law practice has been referred to in these ways: virtual law office or VLO, virtual law firm, eLawyering or online law practice. Law firm web sites which just a description of a law firm’s practice, biographical information and the partners and employees of the firm, and some legal information, but no access to a secure “client portal.” would not be a virtual law practice.
A “client portal” enables access only with a unique username and password that the client uses to enter his or her own secure web space within the attorney’s Web site. A client portal is unique to virtual law practice and is the key to differentiating it from other web-based or cloud-based services.
Within the “client portal” the client can communicate and collaborate with their attorney securely with industrial–strength encryption for every communication. The attorneys and their clients can securely discuss matters on-line, download and upload documents for review, pay bills online, schedule appointments and meetings online, review case documents online and handle other business transactions related to the delivery of legal services in a secure digital environment. In addition, legal applications can be offered, such as web-enabled document automation, which increase the law firm’s productivity and enhance the user experience. Inside the secure client portal, web-based legal applications can be offered which substitute in part for the work of the lawyer resulting in an increase in productivity for the law firm. A “client portal” application is essential to an ethically compliant virtual law practice.
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What a “Virtual Law Practice” is Not
The literature about “virtual law practice” often quotes some lawyers as referencing themselves as “virtual lawyers” because they have no physical office, meet clients within their client’s office or at the local Starbucks, and do their legal work by email, cell phone and tablet computer. But since these lawyers don’t deliver online legal services securely, one would not consider them to be true “virtual lawyers”.
This is a difference between virtual law practice and just being a “mobile” lawyer. We would characterize the mobile lawyer as just being “untethered” – a lawyer who is mobile and free from a specific office location. A “virtual lawyer” is also an “untethered” lawyer, but he/she is also much more than that when integrating a client portal into their virtual practice model. Making this distinction is important because when the lawyer is evaluating his or her compliance with the rules of professional conduct ethics issues arise from the direct delivery of legal services to clients online. For example, if the lawyer is delivering legal services to clients online, there may be an online form of limited scope engagement agreement that must be properly executed securely online.
The establishment of the lawyer/client relationship online through a secure client portal and use of a click wrap agreement requires compliance with rules that a virtual practitioner must know that go beyond the traditional establishment of the lawyer/client relationship. Many lawyers now use legal applications hosted in the cloud. Using cloud-based applications does not define “virtual law practice.” Using a time-keeping and billing application originally hosted in a local sever within the law office and now hosted in the cloud does not make one a “virtual lawyer.”
A “virtual lawyer” delivers legal services online. The secure and encrypted online connection where clients interact with their lawyers and complete tasks related to the solution of their legal problems defines “virtual law practice.”
Online Legal Services is the Future
Delivering legal services online is the future. It is the path towards streamlining a law practice, increasing productivity, and lowering costs to serve clients more effectively. As more web-based applications are created that substitute for the work of a lawyer, the client portal becomes the essential component in the lawyer’s toolbox for delivering legal services.
In the fullness of time, all clients will expect their lawyers to can work and interact with them securely online. A “Virtual Law Practice” will not be something only for “early adopters” – it will become an essential component of every law firm practice