Yesterday I did a blog post Virtual Law Offices are Becoming a Real-World Alternative that outlined the case for virtual law practices. The same day, Sharon Nelson and John W. Simek posted an article called The Virtual Lawyer Stampede that is worthwhile reading as well. But today I want to point you to an article "This Isn't Your Father's Law Firm"–But Maybe It Should Be whose author, Victor J. Medina, believes that virtual law practices (and unbundled legal services generally) stand for some of the worst possible things to happen to our profession.
The interesting thing is that, having spent a good amount of time as an "old school" lawyer myself, I don't disagree with a lot of what he has to say. You really should read his article. His primary point can be found in this quote from the article: "A lawyer’s value is not just in the deliverables or the court appearance that he or she makes, but in the ability to think through a problem, to counsel a client, or to strategize alongside a client for the client's benefit." He goes on to add that long-term relationships with clients where they are encouraged to have annual reviews at modest fees are good for the lawyer and client. I don't know of any good lawyer who would disagree that attorney-client relationships are critical and most important in our profession.
He also notes his long-term clients may expect to get a better deal on some services than a walk-in client. That seems totally appropriate to me on several levels, including the fact that the long-term, frequently reviewed client will be easier to work with. I made the comment to some new friends in New Mexico recently that rather than cutting a fee for a business formation to be competitive, why not add more value? Don't just set up the business formation paperwork, but give them a handbook on how to run a business in your state, a calendar of all important dates for filing dates during the next two years and tell them they can have an appointment with you twice during the next year for up to one hour of advice for only $20 each time. Offer to do their minutes or other annual documents for a modest annual fee. Maybe you can develop what looked like a one-time transaction into a long term relationship that will be better for you both.
But I do disagree with Mr. Medina's implication that a virtual lawyer cannot develop a client relationship over the Internet. Our great-grandparents would have probably said you couldn't develop relationships over the telephone and yet, every lawyer likely spends more time with clients on the phone than in person today. Future generations may read a text message from their lawyer, chuckle and think "my lawyer's pretty funny" without it ever occurring to the client that they have never met face to face. Mr. Medina and I will probably always believe in that face to face contact. But we cannot forecast what the new generation, nurtured on text messages and never having known a world without the Internet will think. Perhaps the lawyer they spend less time with is the best for them as they set their schedules. Perhaps that will be a loss for lawyer and client.
Personally I tend to think that video conferencing is the game changer in this. Seeing the lawyer's expressions as they listen to you and talk to you will be more "personal" than a phone call. We anticipate that better monitors, faster Internet connections, more phones that video conference and more webcams in homes will improve this. And it is already about as easy to send them a document online as to slide it across your desk.
The most important lesson for young lawyers is that there are now many choices available on how you want to serve your clients. But you cannot do everything–at least not all at the same time. Do what is comfortable for you and good for your clients. The rest should work out fine.