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This article is written by Rashi Singh, from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. This is an exhaustive article which deals with the working of virtual lawyers and law firms, their rise in recent times and the pros and cons associated with this setup.

Introduction 

What is that one thing which kept us going during the pandemic? One thing that helped the businesses, professionals and families to remain in touch during all that time. Of course, your answer would be technology. Newborns in this era would never know a life without technology. Technology is here to stay, this is one such innovation that will not go anywhere even if the pandemic goes away today. As lawyers, how can we use the technology to sustain ourselves? In this article, we are going to discuss the birth of virtual lawyers and virtual law firms as their rise in recent times has revolutionized the way the legal industry works.

Traditional v. virtual law firms

How is a virtual law firm different from the traditional one? Well, the major difference is in the structure. While a traditional law firm operates from a building of bricks and mortar, a virtual law firm has no such structure. Virtual law firms operate majorly through cloud computing technology. It allows lawyers to work from anywhere i.e. home, coffee shops or any other place. Virtual law firms provide their services online to clients from all across the globe. Traditional law firms, on the other hand, have physical offices, and face to face interactions with the clients. Due to the rise in virtual law firms, traditional law firms are also leveraging some of their work digitally. We will discuss some major differences between a traditional and a virtual law firm.

Overheads

Traditional law firms have various costs attached to their functioning. Rent or lease, IT maintenance, management-related costs constitute a major portion of a law firm cost. A virtual law firm gets away with organizational costs associated with a law practice. 

Communication with clients

In a traditional law firm, communication majorly happens through emails and phone calls. In-person client meetings are followed in a traditional setting. A virtual law firm setting adopts online face to face meetings.

Collaboration with colleagues

In a traditional setup, collaboration takes place through printed documents and hard copies of various legal forms and documents. On the other hand, in a virtual setting colleagues collaborate digitally through cloud-based software to work on cases assigned to them.

Flexibility

Traditional law firms require lawyers to work from an office. But, virtual firms allow their lawyers to work from anywhere. Client reach is better in a virtual setup as geographical barriers seem irrelevant.

Digital reach

In this era, getting a client through conventional methods is not the norm. The digital presence of virtual lawyers ensures wider client reach whereas traditional practices result in a time-consuming process.

Why virtual law firms are replacing traditional practices?

It is so hard to ignore the new model of legal practice in the tech-savvy world. Virtual law firms are a new norm because of various reasons. COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown is not the only driving force behind this structure. Long before COVID-19, various virtual law firms evolved in America and Britain.

Reduced cost and flexible working hours are some of the main reasons behind the rise of this model. As compared to the traditional law firms where a lot of different costs are attached, virtual law firms require a laptop, high-speed internet connectivity, office stationery etc. which does not make a big dent in the pocket. Virtual lawyers work comfortably while sitting on their couch or in a coffee shop, which is a miss in the traditional law firms. And that is why virtual law firms are providing their services in almost all practice areas.

What is a virtual law firm?

Cloud computing is the basis of basically every virtual business. Legal specific practice management tools are developed in the fast-changing world to enable lawyers and firms to directly engage with their clients. Now, let us understand how a virtual law firm works. 

Virtual law firms work from anywhere

If a firm is completely virtual, it can work from anywhere. Work can easily be done from any remote location. These firms often have physical addresses too for mailings or listing purposes.

For smooth functioning, secure technology and all other processes need to be in place to get started.

Virtual law firms adopt technology

Having a virtual law firm means embracing and utilizing technology in an effective way. Virtual law firms use various functions such as online calendars for consulting services, video conferences, document sharing and storing through cloud systems, online payments, client portal management, virtual reception services, encrypted messaging and management services. Using these technologies virtual law firms manage to have lighter, flexible and safer legal practices.

Virtual law firms work through a client portal

A client portal is an electronic gateway to a collection of various digital files, services, and information, accessible over the internet through a web browser. We can say that a client portal is a sharing mechanism between an organization and its clients. Without an effective client portal, it is difficult to guarantee lawyer-client confidentiality. 

Both the client and businesses agree that sensitive information is protected and there is an easier communication pathway. Hence, a client portal allows the clients to review documents, upload documents for attorneys review, pay bills and a lot more other services. Clients have direct access to their lawyers through the client portal. Also, there is hardly any chance of loss of data as this mechanism assures paperless work and the data is stored in a cloud system.

Altogether, in a virtual law firm set up, there is little to no chance of client and lawyers in-person meeting and typically everything operates digitally.  

What are the benefits of a virtual law firm?

A virtual law firm setup is not just beneficial for an unprecedented time like this but also in the long run it has various advantages. Some of the advantages include:

It is less expensive

A virtual law practice can help you cut on unnecessary costs and increase revenue. Various overhead costs which one has to bear while operating through traditional practices can be easily ignored in a virtual setup. You get rid of the rent or mortgage for office space, bundling technology services, and outsourcing staff. All this money saved can automatically increase the revenue and help you enlarge your legal practice. Hence, in the long run, lower overhead means greater profitability.

Free time for other activities

Better work-life balance is one of the major reasons which is encouraging lawyers to embrace this model. Lawyers with wider areas of interests apart from the law can now save some time for those activities. This model allows us to save commuting time from home to office, and spend more time with family. Female lawyers with kids can now work from home without compromising their time with families. Lack of work-life balance forces the legal talent to switch to more flexible options which can now be avoided.

It benefits businesses

This type of practice model can help you target clients residing farther since you are not located only in one physical location. Apart from enhancing the client base, you can also offer various types of services. Virtual law firms allow greater flexibility and wider opportunities for lawyers. Being a virtual lawyer, one can manage to reach clients despite geographical and cultural differences.

Expansion of team

Recruiting the best talent from anywhere around the world helps you to achieve and maintain the team of your choice. Location can no more be a hurdle in hiring the best minds and fit. In this way, you can hire lawyers to serve different clients with different requirements allowing you to offer a wider range of services.

Environment-friendly practice

Paper-less work and the generation of less office waste are some of the eco-friendly practices, which is possible if you have a virtual legal practice. Ever-increasing pollution demands greener practices by the organization and a virtual setup allows you to achieve this.

Some of the other benefits include:

  • For solo attorneys, virtual systems allow them to be more competitive.
  • No office management is necessary.
  • No long term commitment.
  • You can pay for office services only when you need them.
  • Low start-up cost.
  • There is an opportunity to co-counsel as well.
  • There is a high chance to use a dual license. 

Drawbacks of a virtual law firm

As said with every innovation comes new challenges. A virtual law firm has its own drawbacks. Some of the disadvantages of virtual law practice include:

Difficult to build relationships

Lawyers share fiduciary relationships with their clients i.e. a relationship based on trust. A client trusts his lawyer with a lot of sensitive and confidential information. Some matters even require an emotional and deep conversation with a client. A virtual lawyer needs to make an extra effort to gain the trust of the client as there is a lack of in-person meetings. Trust plays a vital role in building healthier relationships with a client. In such cases, a traditional law firm can be a more viable option for the clients.

Lack of social activities

As rightly said by Aristotle, man is a social animal, he needs to have a social life. There is always a benefit to knowing your colleagues and having connections beyond the purely business. Lack of social interactions and conversations among colleagues can lead to poor coordination while working together on a project. A sense of loneliness and mental stress can worsen the situation for a virtual lawyer.

Hard to train a team

It is comparatively hard to manage a team when every other lawyer is working remotely. Virtual lawyers may find themselves helpless in situations where proper guidance from a senior is required. Poor training of young lawyers can affect the quality of work produced. To avoid such situations, lawyers need to get accustomed to virtual training systems.

Security threat

Businesses are somewhere sceptical of a client portal system. Sharing data through client portals poses some security threats too. Though everything remains encrypted there is always a lack of assurance. Businesses with sensitive information such as medical data, express wider concerns in this regard.

The reality of work-life balance

Virtual lawyers often complain that they end up working more hours in a virtual space. A virtual law firm often creates an illusionary work-life balance. Virtual lawyers tend to jeopardize their family time or me-time more often than ever. Flexible working hours can mean working without a scheduled structure. That is why a lot of lawyers still prefer to work in a traditional brick and mortar structure.

Not beneficial for every kind of practice

An online-only policy may not be the best fit for every practice area. Matters involving complex litigation can be difficult to carry out in a virtual-only setup. Cases, where lawyers tend to have emotional and deep conversations with their client, are preferable in the conventional setup only. Hence, virtual legal practices restrict the practice areas for a law firm.

Conclusion

A virtual law firm is the reality of the 21st century. Adapting to newer technologies always comes in handy. Clients are happy to rely on virtual lawyers and law firms provided that there is no compromisation with the quality of work. Traditional law firms need to welcome this newer version of providing services to remain in the global competition. Also, virtual lawyers need to make sure all the processes are in place to run the day-to-day business. In this way, virtual lawyers and firms can build a profitable and fulfilling legal practice.

References

  1. Law Firms Going Virtual – Prism Legal
  2. https://www.lawtechnologytoday.org/2018/03/virtual-law-office/
  3. https://www.lexisnexis.com/community/lexis-legal-advantage/b/trends/posts/will-virtual-law-firms-be-the-next-big-thing
  4. Client portal – Wikipedia
  5. Why You Should Become a Virtual Lawyer (and How)! | My …
  6. https://www.wolterskluwer.com/en-gb/expert-insights/the-rise-of-the-virtual-lawyer-traditional-vs-virtual-law-firms

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