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Virtual offices spring up, let lawyers expand reach

Rochester Business Journal
January 11, 2013

Attorney Tracy Jong sits at her computer in Rochester, offering immigration law advice in Europe.
 
Jong, who practices at Tracy Jong Law Firm P.C., has not met in person with her clients in Europe or Asia. While she is licensed in New York and her firm is not entirely online, areas of practice like immigration or intellectual property are national or international in scale, giving Jong access to more than one state.
 
While it seems unorthodox to some, virtual law offices have been springing up since the American Bar Association recognized them in 2003.
 
With a virtual law office, all or part of the firm's website is a portal where clients can interact with their attorneys, logging in to upload documents, review and approve matters and conduct other business that traditionally was handled face to face.
 
"What we do is collect information from a client, then prepare a draft of a document and send it to them with instructions on how they can execute it or the next steps if they want to file it themselves. ... They can pay for the legal time but not the full service," Jong says.
 
To Chas Rampenthal, California-based general counsel at virtual law office LegalZoom Inc., that is one of the biggest advantages of a virtual law office.
 
"It can efficiently use unbundled legal services to save clients money, since they can handle much of the work surrounding their legal consultation themselves, with an attorney advising them," Rampenthal says. "This also means that the attorney can have more flexible work hours and be able to serve a much larger client base.
 
"They will save significant overhead related to running a practice, which can include things like office space, paper and legal staff."
 
Rochester's Nicole Black, director at MyCase.com, says the biggest difference between a brick-and-mortar firm and a virtual law office is in the types of cases.
 
"It has to be a transactional law practice for the most part," Black says. "If you're a litigator or criminal defense attorney, you need the client contact, you need to have an office to meet with clients, and you need to go to court.
 
"So for some attorneys, the virtual doesn't work too well. But for those that are transactional, they're more document-based, it works much better."
 
Another advantage is the ability to offer statewide service.
 
"Attorneys based in a big metropolitan area can provide services to someone in a more rural community who either doesn't have a law office in their area or an attorney with the right expertise," says Kevin Chern, Chicago-based president of Total Attorneys Inc.
 
Total Attorneys offers a secure portal service for either virtual law offices or brick-and-mortar types. It has iPhone and iPad applications and even provides a virtual receptionist for virtual law offices that do not have one on staff and want a more professional image.
 
Virtual law offices also allow for private chats with clients on secure servers. For Jong, uploading documents has been a big help as well.
 
But she does see a downside to a virtual office. Some websites have people create their own forms with no legal advice.
 
"I have clients often coming in thinking they have something that they really don't have," Jong says. "So in that respect, those portals will never replace lawyers, because people have trouble understanding those forms."
 
The court system also can be a hindrance.
 
"Many courts still require in-person paperwork filing, and almost all require personal appearances for matters that are decided in court," Rampenthal says. "Additionally, there are some issues, like criminal defense, where a face-to-face meeting can give the client a great deal of assurance in the lawyer."
 
While Chern does not believe there will ever be a day when 100 percent of legal matters will be dealt with online, he says only 3 percent of legal matters actually go to trial.
 
"It's going to be an evolution over a period of years for many practices to shift to virtual," he notes. "Consumers are more interested now in consuming legal practices in the way they do a lot of other things.
 
"Think about it: 15 years ago, the idea of conducting all your banking online was inconceivable, and now the idea of actually going to the bank is distasteful to some people."
 
Technology also has leveled the playing field. It is much easier for smaller shops to compete with larger law firms.
 
"You don't need a brick-and-mortar office, a fax machine or copier," Black says. "You could do it all from your home. It changes the game."
 
But many legal minds still need to face the reality that it is no longer a pen-and-ink world, Rampenthal says.
 
"I hope that as time goes on, more and more courts see the benefit of online document filing and access.
 
"There are many people in this country that have no real meaningful access to the legal system due to its built-in inefficiencies. Allowing and promoting e-lawyering is one way to make the system more efficient and open access to more and more deserving Americans."

Megan Goldschmidt is a freelance writer and a former Rochester Business Journal intern.1/11/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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