Building the 21st-Century Law Firm

Really Virtual: Putting a practice online means access, efficiency and upkeep

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Richard  S. Granat

Richard S. Granat. Photo courtesy of Richard S. Granat.

What is a virtual law practice? It’s a law firm that provides a web-based environment in which the client can communicate with an attorney and access legal services securely online. Some services may be provided by the attorney, such as legal advice. Other legal services, such as web-enabled document automation, combine a digital application with the skills of the lawyer.

An attorney with a traditional law office may add a virtual law practice, or a virtual practice may be online without physical constraints. In both cases, the attorney may use virtual lawyering technologies and more traditional skills.

The cost of adding a virtual presence is minor. For a solo law firm, it can be under $25 per month. By going completely virtual, except for the price of a space to meet with a client in person, the savings can be $1,000 per month or more for a solo—and even more if a multilawyer firm has all its lawyers practicing virtually.

A virtual law practice has been referred to as a virtual law office, or VLO; virtual law firm; e-lawyering; or online law practice. But law firm websites—which may have a description of a law firm’s practice, biographical information for the firm’s partners and employees, and some legal information but no access to a secure client portal—would not be characterized as a virtual law practice.

To be able to provide legal services and communicate and collaborate with clients on the internet, the virtual law firm must have a secure client portal. A client portal enables access only with a unique user name and password that clients use to enter their own secure web space within the attorney’s website. This client-specific portal in which the client and attorney interact is unique to virtual law practice and is the key to differentiating it from other web-based or cloud-based services.

Within the client portal, clients can communicate and collaborate with their attorneys securely with industrial-strength encryption for every communication. Attorneys and their clients can securely discuss matters online, download and upload documents for review, pay bills, schedule appointments and meetings, review case documents, and handle other business transactions in a secure digital environment.

In addition, legal applications can be provided, such as web-enabled document automation, to increase the law firm’s productivity and enhance the user experience. Inside the secure client portal, web-based legal applications can be provided that substitute, in part, for the work of the lawyer. A client portal application is essential to an ethically compliant virtual law practice.

point, click, practice

Some lawyers might refer to themselves as virtual lawyers because they have no physical office; meet a client in their client’s office or at a Starbucks; and do their legal work by email, cellphone and tablet computer. But because these lawyers don’t deliver online legal services securely, one would not consider them to be true virtual lawyers.

This is a difference between a virtual law practice and being a mobile lawyer. A mobile lawyer is characterized as being untethered—a lawyer who is mobile and free from a specific office location. Virtual lawyers also are untethered lawyers, but they are much more than that when they integrate a client portal into their practice.

Making this distinction is important. When the lawyer is evaluating his or her compliance with the rules of professional conduct, ethics issues arise from the direct delivery of legal services to clients online. For example, if the lawyer is delivering legal services to clients online, there may be a form of limited-scope-engagement agreement that must be properly and securely executed online.

The establishment of the lawyer-client relationship online through a client portal and use of a “clickwrap” agreement requires compliance with specific rules that a virtual practitioner must know.

Many lawyers now use legal applications hosted in the cloud. But use of cloud-based applications does not define a virtual law practice. Using a timekeeping and billing application originally hosted in a local server within the law office and now hosted in the cloud does not make one a virtual lawyer.

A virtual lawyer delivers legal services online. What defines a virtual law practice is the secure, encrypted online connection in which clients interact with lawyers and complete tasks related to the solution of their legal problems.


Illustration by Monica Burciaga/Shutterstock

Illustration by Monica Burciaga/Shutterstock

Interest in virtual law practice is being driven by changes in consumer behavior and the rise of a new class of clients who expect their lawyers to work online with them. As global legal market analyst Jordan Furlong has noted, the platform for the delivery of legal services is rapidly shifting from in-office interaction to the internet. A new generation of web-savvy clients have the internet in their DNA. These clients play, learn, shop, communicate, book travel, bank, amuse themselves, interact and do everything else online. Why would they not expect their lawyers to also serve them online?

The clients in this new generation:

  • Look to the web as the first place to go for information, alternatives and options.
  • Want to try before they buy.
  • Seek digital spaces that are interactive.
  • Would rather interact with a website before they talk to a professional.
  • Prefer digital communication to telephone or face-to-face communication.
  • And value the convenience and speed that the internet provides.

The “connected generation” intuitively understands virtual lawyering.

diving into virtual

For many law firms, the first step in adding a virtual dimension to their law practice is to incorporate a secure client portal into their website.

Virtual law practice transactions include review of invoices; payment of legal fees; updates on case status; scheduling appointments; text-based and threaded communications with members of the firm; online client intake forms; and other online form programs—part of a document assembly and automation feature used by the firm in creating legal documents.

Regardless of which features the client can use once he or she is logged in to the client portal, each technology requires that the client first register on the firm’s website, then select a unique user name and pass-word to use when accessing the interface. The client may then connect to his or her own case file or secure account page within the law firm’s secure client portal.

Many law practice management solutions now contain a client portal that is ready to use with no additional programming. A short list could include Clio, MyCase, Rocket Matter, PracticePanther, CosmoLex and Actionstep, to name just a few vendors that now provide out-of-the-box client portal functionality. If you go down this path, you’d want to carefully examine whether the client portal built into a law practice management application supports the online delivery of legal services and other services you want to provide.

Specialized approaches, including my company DirectLaw, are designed to provide a web application that is client-centered and engineered to support the delivery of online legal services. DirectLaw includes a client-facing document automation platform with state-specific libraries of automated legal documents that enable a client to input answers in an online questionnaire, resulting in a first draft of a document ready for the lawyer’s review and revision.

Another path toward virtual law practice is to participate in a branded network platform that links clients to lawyers and provides a secure platform for the delivery and payment of legal services. Examples include Bridge U.S., UpCounsel and Avvo.

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For most law firms, moving toward virtual law practice in steps makes the most sense. First, identify a process within the law firm that could be automated or streamlined and provided online. Examples include speeding up the client intake process by having clients register to complete a secure online client intake form before they make an office appointment or completing an online questionnaire that immediately creates a first draft of a document ready for the lawyer’s further review, analysis and revision.

Second, be realistic with yourself about your comfort level with technology. To successfully and ethically implement virtual lawyering, you must keep up to date on developing the virtual lawyering methods you are using.

Third, when researching ways to implement virtual lawyering, consult your state bar’s ethics rules to see how or whether they are being updated to cover the technology you wish to use.

Fourth, before diving in, consider your client base and the clients’ needs. If you will serve an older clientele, you might find they prefer to meet with you face to face in the traditional office environment. If your clients are more tech savvy, they might prefer to work with you through an online platform.

Delivering legal services online is the path toward streamlining a law practice, increasing productivity and lowering costs to serve clients more effectively. As more web-based applications are created that substitute for the work of a lawyer, the client portal becomes the essential component in the lawyer’s toolbox for delivering legal services.

In the fullness of time, all clients will expect their lawyers to work and interact with them securely online. Virtual law practice will not be something only for early adopters. It will become an essential component of every law firm practice.


Richard S. Granat is the founder and CEO of DirectLaw Inc. and the managing partner of, one of the first virtual law firms in the United States.

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