Going virtual: Are you ready for the challenge?

  • August 14, 2008
  • Daniel Casciato

Two years ago, when Stephanie Kimbro, a lawyer in Wilmington, North Carolina, launched her virtual law office (VLO), some lawyers could not fathom someone would attempt such a radical idea.

“I’m in a small town where lawyers are traditional and believe you need to meet with clients in person,” says Kimbro, who founded Kimbro Legal Services, LLC. “My VLO also offers fixed fees, and there’s a hesitation with some lawyers to do anything but billable hours.”

Conversely, there were just as many lawyers who offered support. “They felt there was a need and this was a way to meet it,” she says. “Lower-income individuals need legal assistance. A VLO is a good platform for the public to get those services.”

Just what is a VLO? Kimbro describes it as “a professional law practice that exists online through a secure portal and is accessible to the client and the lawyer anywhere the parties may access the Internet.” The lawyer normally works from a home office and either hosts clients there or visits them in their homes, businesses or other locations.

VLOs provides lawyers and clients the ability to securely discuss matters online, download and upload documents for review, and handle other business transactions in a secure digital environment. For solo practitioners and small firms, they offer several advantages: expanding a client base, collaborating with other lawyers locally and across jurisdictions, reducing environmental costs, and achieving a better work/life balance.

Kimbro stresses that simply communicating with clients by e-mail does not make a law practice a VLO, nor does it make it secure. “My site is secure HTTP. The site has SSL, which encrypts all communications and anything my client and I upload and download through the site. E-mail is not encrypted, can be intercepted at any time and isn’t confidential; the VLO site is protected and encrypted.”

Karl Schieneman, founder of Pittsburgh-based 123 Law Group, a Web portal connecting clients to a network of 25 lawyers (many of whom have a VLO) in an array of practice areas, confirms that many people feel unsafe communicating online. But the Internet can actually offer more security than a typical law office.

“A lawyer can write a note, leave it on their desk, and someone can walk into their office and read it,” he says. “You could be on the phone and someone could overhear you. And that vision of safe confidentiality is impossible once you start recording. Online is more secure, because your documents are password-protected and kept in a place where they won’t be misplaced.”

Kimbro’s husband, a software developer, created software allowing her to run her VLO securely and safely. When other lawyers began approaching her for advice, they turned that software into a product they could sell.

That software made it easy for Virginia lawyer Cassie Craze to launch her VLO in May. Craze, a mother of two children under the age of two, enjoys the flexibility. “You’re not working fewer hours than a traditional practice, but at least you can do it on your own schedule,” says Craze, who specializes in estate planning, adoptions and special education.

Another benefit is low overhead, which is what persuaded Chicago lawyer Keith Jacobson to start his VLO, Jacobson & Schiefelbein, with another colleague last July. “In Chicago, rent can cost about $1,000 a month. With a VLO, physical space isn’t an issue,” says Jacobson. “Working virtually also frees you from collecting paper. Having primary files digital reduces overhead and streamlines your work.”

That leads to more affordable rates, says Craze. “We hear from people who are unhappy with how a traditional law firm operates and its high fees. They can’t afford their lawyer anymore. Some people may just need a question answered or a document drafted. My fees are half, if not lower, than a traditional law office.”

But VLOs aren’t restricted to solo or very small practices. In mid-July came word that Craig Johnson, a Silicon Valley lawyer and entrepreneur who founded the pioneering technology law practice Venture Law Group in 1993, had launched Virtual Law Partners, a “distributed, web-based law firm” of 15 lawyers.

VLP aims to provide clients with top-rank service at lower rates by saving on overhead and allowing lawyers to work from home and achieve better personal balance. Its website touts client benefits like better cost control, billing rates, technology, knowledge of the client’s business, and environmental friendliness.

For lawyers considering starting their own VLO, Kimbro recommends they decide on the nature of their practice and how they plan to structure it, hire a professional to design the site, and acquire an SSL certificate and ensure that the site is secure.

“In addition to people and legal skills, you need to develop technology skills,” Schieneman adds. “If you’re a sole practitioner ... you’re used to dealing with clients one-on-one. It’s a change in mindset, which I think many lawyers are still uncomfortable with, especially since you’re not making a million dollars right away.”

Still, Schieneman expects to see more VLOs in less than five years. “This whole field of virtual law is an evolutionary field. My premise is that we’ve made progress to VLO version 2.0, but we’re not at version 3.0, where things really will become interesting.”

Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.