The concept of a virtual law practice would have made my judge’s head spin back in my clerkship days. We had email in the court, but it was only used to communicate birthday celebrations and happy hours with the other clerks. Counsel surely didn’t email us, and we didn’t even send the judge draft opinions. He who was greatly concerned about our manner of dress behind the closed doors of chambers would have found the idea of practicing law from behind a computer at any given physical location on earth, dressed in whatever we chose, absolutely beyond comprehension.
Fast forward 13 years, and virtual law practices are on the rise. By “virtual” I mean an attorney with no physical office space, usually no hard-bound law books, who conducts the bulk of her business through online means (web portals and emails) and phone. It’s what I do, and it’s what a growing number of lawyers are doing too.
The California Law Journal had a great article on this a few months ago. They noted that “the practice of virtual law is here to stay” and I agree. Having done my time in the world of BigLaw and investigated various options as a solo, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are dozens of technological tools to make a virtual practice simple and smooth. For far less than the cost of office rent, we can set up online portals that our clients can log into and see their case files, do live face-to-face chatting online in place of pricey in-person meetings, and share files quickly and easily. This reliance on technology is probably going to turn off a certain segment of the potential client population, primarily the older generation but also some technophobes, and I do hear from some virtual lawyers about the measures they take to ensure this population is also served (renting office space for the occasional meeting being the most frequent), but overall I find it so effective that I see no need for a brick and mortar practice for my particular client base (other lawyers).
In a recent article for the ABA, Nicole Black discussed the state of the economy for new law grads. I highly recommend reading her article, but let it suffice to say for my purposes that the state of the economy for new grads is horrible. Jobs are few and far between, and going solo straight out of school is becoming more common. I hope that many of those new grads facing the possibility of going solo fresh out of the gate will look to virtual practices for guidance. It is truly the new age of law practice, in my view, and one I expect to see grow enormously in the next several years. With the influx of fresh graduates in the solo arena, they can help push the concept forward.
From a State Bar defense perspective, I also see virtual practices as a positive step. One of, if not the, biggest complaints about lawyers is lack of communication. I think clients sometimes see us as purposely ducking their calls or actually afraid of the phone, but in fact most lawyers get so bogged down in doing their clients’ work that they have trouble making time to actually communicate to their clients that the work is being done. One aspect of virtual practice that can be implemented is an online spot where clients can check their case’s progress. Without even having a phone conversation with their attorney, clients can see their case is moving forward. If we can keep clients up to date this way, perhaps State Bar grievances stemming from a lack of correspondence can be reduced.