Virtual law practices (or virtual law offices) might mean different things to different people. For today's discussion, I am talking about a lawyer who decides to practice without a physical office by using the Internet to attract and serve clients. I know a traditional law firm might decide to add a virtual practice component and some law firms have many or all who are virtual lawyers and do not work in the same location. But for today let's talk about the lawyer who decides that he or she can function without a physical office to meet and greet clients and avoid the overhead associated with maintaining that location.
I direct your attention to two resources on this topic: Jay Fleischman has a great new blog post "Being a Virtual Lawyer is all Mindset, not Technology" and in this month's podcast, the 33rd Edition of The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology, Sharon Nelson and I take on the topic Virtual Lawyering Goes Mainstream.
There are many reasons a lawyer might want to have a virtual law practice. A lawyer might have family responsibilities caring for children or (increasingly these day) ailing parents that keep one from practicing law full time and require flexibility in scheduling. A part time lawyer may have real trouble supporting a bricks and mortar practice overhead. A lawyer may have moved out of the state in which the lawyer is licensed for a few years, but intends to return and wants to do some legal work and keep current on the law. A veteran lawyer might want to slow down and focus on a few areas or a few clients he or she really enjoys. A lawyer might find that market forces have reduced what clients are willing to pay for certain types of services and the lawyers need to reduce the fees the lawyer charges without reducing net income. A lawyer might want to travel more without retiring. A young lawyer wanting to open a law practice might not have the start-up capital and might be concerned about incurring more debt on top of their student loans to do so.
A lawyer also might have time committed to another endeavor or vocation. If a lawyer really enjoys officiating sporting events several nights a week, a 9 – 5 job might be too much. A virtual law practice might be great for a lawyer in training for the Olympics or who is also a professional skateboarder.
But while this practice could be good for the lawyer, the really important thing is that a virtual lawyer might also fit some client's needs and desires very well these days. Many potential clients are already doing a lot of their business and work online. Some clients have a difficult time getting off from work to meet with a lawyer from 9-5 and if the husband and wife both need to meet with the lawyer, it can be almost impossible. Besides if you offer the client the ability not to lose pay by missing work to meet with you, you are offering them an arguably more attractive service.
So the virtual lawyer might spend Thursday morning at the gym, have a lunch with friends or colleagues, run a couple of errands and then settle in for a late afternoon and evening session of video conference appointments with clients in their homes via Skype. You might not want to do that every night, but you wouldn't have to. Parents could spent the time when kids are in school or doing their homework doing legal work. For many, just avoiding a long commute would add several hours to their weekly schedule.
More and more, people are using the Internet for all sorts of reasons. Meeting with your lawyer online will seem no different than talking to your lawyer on the phone to many. If the workload is too much, there are those who serve lawyers as virtual assistants. Now certainly there are some situations where this may not work. It is hard to see a busy litigator who makes regular court appearances almost every day going virtual and if your work requires a staff of paralegals and assistants, that might be hard to manage virtually.
The virtual lawyer will probably have to make very smart decisions about limiting the practice areas and assignments they will accept. A virtual lawyer might have to accept that there is a ceiling to how much money could be made this way. (However, if one is paying 60% or more in overhead, the lawyer might also find a virtual practice with fewer clients still equals more money.)
Listen to the Virtual Lawyering podcast and read Jay Fleischman's outline of the tools he uses in his practice. There's a lot more to setting up a virtual law practice than we have covered here, including a far different marketing plan. But, give consumers a choice and you may find that they will choose a real, live "virtual" lawyer in their state instead of some national so-called document preparer who wants to charge them twice as much for no advice and a poorer result.