Law Practice Management

Twitter Debate: Virtual Law Offices -- Game Changer or Business as Usual? (w/Transcript)

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Updated: The modern law practice is evolving. Technology continues to erase physical borders as innovative lawyers seek out new ways to serve their clients with increased flexibility, greater access and lower cost structures.

For many, the practice of the future involves virtual law offices, which allow lawyers to offer a traditional suite of services without being tethered to what they see as costly and, for the most part, unnecessary office space. But for every lawyer who claims that virtual law offices are the way of the future, there are those who remain unconvinced that traditional brick-and-mortar structured office suites should become optional.

But should they? Are virtual law offices really changing the law practice landscape? Or are VLOs business as usual?

On May 7, Stephanie Kimbro and Brian Tannebaum, both well versed in the issues surrounding virtual law offices, squared off with their perspectives during a Twitter debate sponsored by 22 Tweets and the ABA Journal.

Meet the debaters:

Stephanie Kimbro (@StephKimbro) is a virtual law office pioneer and evangelist, spreading the gospel of online lawyering. On Twitter she’s identified as an attorney and owner of Kimbro Legal Services, a virtual law practice in N.C. She’s also co-founder of VLOTech, a tech company providing SaaS virtual law office software.

Brian Tannebaum (@BTannebaum) shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere curmudgeon. A closer look at his perspective reveals that it’s one of pure practicality. On Twitter, Tannebaum identifies himself as a Miami native, father, criminal & bar admission/discipline defense lawyer, red wine junkie, Type II diabetic, and transparency hawk.

Moderating the Twitter Debate will be the Godard Group’s Lance Godard (@LanceGodard), who founded 22 Tweets, where he conducts real-time Twitter interviews with practicing lawyers who tweet.

Twitter Debate Transcript

To see the full discussion, including nearly 400 tweets and re-tweets from more than 50 Twitter users, click here #22TwDb or see a transcript and stats from the debate at What the Hashtag?I.

@22Twts Welcome to the inaugural 22 Tweets Twitter Debate. Our topic today is “Virtual Law Offices: Game-changer or Business as Usual?”

@22Twts The ground rules. This debate is about VLOs, not the debaters. Our goal is to explore the issues, not to determine who is wrong.

@22Twts Accordingly, while we welcome insight from tweeps following the debate, we ask you refrain from personal attacks. They don’t help.

@22Twts Second, we welcome your insight but our debaters can’t respond directly to your comments. Feel free to engage them at a later time

@22Twts Finally, the debate archive will be posted to @ABAJournal. Watch for the link, then add your thoughts to the ongoing conversation

@22Twts Welcome, @stephkimbro and @btannebaum. Thank you very much for joining us today to share your views on Virtual Law Offices

@BTannebaum: Good afternoon

@StephKimbro: Good afternoon, Brian.

@22Twts Let’s get started. @stephkimbro What is a virtual law office? How does it differ from traditional law offices?

@StephKimbro: VLP is a professional law practice online, a secure portal accessible to both the client and the attorney.

@StephKimbro: A VLO can be completely web-based or integrated into a traditional, brick & mortar practice.

@StephKimbro: Clients have their own secure homepage. Upload, download docs, forms, doc assembly, online payments, discussion w/attorney securely.

@StephKimbro: A VLO is just one form of elawyering. See ABA elawyering task force:

@StephKimbro: A secure client portal is the key feature of any virtual law office whether web-based or in a traditional firm structure.

@22Twts @btannebaum Isn’t that what traditional but “plugged-in” law firms are already doing? What’s the difference?

@StephKimbro: VLOs differ from traditional firms by providing unbundled legal services online to clients.

@BTannebaum: No. VLO’s are a function of basically buying documents online with the assistance of a lawyer

@BTannebaum: the use of technology in any law firm is essential today, but there is something special about the attorney client relationship

@BTannebaum: When we reduce law practice to purchasing documents online, we’re not lawyering, we’re selling

@BTannebaum: Lawyers advocate, they advise. It’s a special relationship

@22Twts @stephkimbro your reaction?

@StephKimbro: The technology allows the attorney to form a close relationship w/ the clients online. More involved than generating docs for sale.

@StephKimbro: Virtual law practice provides a solution to consumer need for access to justice and also meets the needs of our changing profession.

@StephKimbro: On VLOs you have the opportunity to provide guidance, advice in addition to legal forms. That is the practice of law.

@StephKimbro: VLOs are not for every practice area or for every client’s circumstances, but meets need of a large segment of our population.

@BTannebaum: I don’t think a large segment of our population “needs” VLO’s, I think a lot of lawyers need VLO’s

@StephKimbro: During January, 2009 - one month alone - estimated 4.5 million people searched online at 1 of 10 websites seeking legal solutions.

@StephKimbro: Non-profit form services created by legal aid orgs & some state courts provide online solutions to the demand.

@StephKimbro: I think it is a combination of both: the public’s need for access and the profession’s need for change in LPM as well.

@BTannebaum: Just because a client is searching for a lawyer online, doesn’t bolster the need for VLO’s

@22Twts @btannebaum why is face to face so important?

@BTannebaum: I think face to face is important in any relationship, not just lawyering

@BTannebaum: If a client wants to buy a will or another legal document online, great, but nothing takes the place of a face to face

@BTannebaum: Any good lawyer knows the best information is received from the client while you are walking them out after your meeting

@StephKimbro: What about integrating a face to face Skype call or web conference in a VLO? That is face to face, just online.

@22Twts @btannebaum but isn’t “good for the lawyer” ultimately good for the client?

@BTannebaum: Good for the lawyer is not necessarily good for the client

@BTannebaum: Many of these lawyers are just looking to practice at Starbucks on their iPads and hope their state Bar allows it

@BTannebaum: NJ has a bona fide office rule

@22Twts @btannebaum Let’s talk about the NJ ethics opinion on VLOs? What exactly was the opinion?

@BTannebaum: the opinion says a virtual office is not an office

@BTannebaum: I agree it was intended to keep out of state lawyers out of NJ

@StephKimbro: Here is the citation for NJ Opinion: (PDF)

@BTannebaum: I think the attitude that the sky is falling with the NJ opinion is ridiculous

@BTannebaum: People need to understand the intent of Bar regulation, not the letter of the rule

@BTannebaum: There will be no “mommy van” driving around looking to see if working mom lawyers are actually at home working

@BTannebaum: @stephkimbro is right - vlos with an address do not violate

@22Twts @btannebaum and do you agree with the NJ Opinion?

@BTannebaum: Why are lawyers so opposed to an address? Seems pretty basic. Lawyers have addresses, they get mail.

@StephKimbro: NJ Op is similar to other ethics ops that fail to recognize attys use of tech in LPM. Ignores basics like email, voice mail, etc.

@StephKimbro: All attorneys at some point in their careers need flexibility to transition their practice from traditional to a hybrid.

@StephKimbro: NJ fails to recognize that attorneys like other professionals should be able to choose what is best for their practice/clients.

@BTannebaum: @stephkimbro nothing wrong with a hybrid practice. Totally virtual is where Bar regulation conflicts

@22Twts @stephkimbro Let’s say concerns about VLOs are valid. Aren’t there other ways to respond than by requiring lawyers to rent space?

@StephKimbro: More attys need flexibility of VLO to care for aging parents, ill spouses, ease into retirement. Will see more of this to come.

@BTannebaum: No @stephkimbro, attorneys should follow the rules, or advocate to change them, outside of whining on twitter

@StephKimbro: Providing guidelines for online delivery of legal services rather than a regulation or mandate in the rules.

@BTannebaum: @22twts no need to rent space, home offices are a-ok.

@StephKimbro: The NC Bar took a great approach w/their proposed cloud computing ethics opinion recently.

@BTannebaum: @StephKimbro if VLO lawyers want state Bars to have VLO guidelines instead of regulate them out of the practice - then propose them

@StephKimbro: My take is that it should be the individual attys responsibility to determine how to be serve their clients using tech.

@BTannebaum: I wonder how many VLO’s are involved in policy committees in their state Bar, probably very, very few.

@BTannebaum: @StephKimbro state Bars have to accept tech. VLO’s need to show the old guard what’s new

@22Twts @stephkimbro how many attorneys with purely virtual practices would you estimate are affected by the NJ opinion?

@StephKimbro: I have no way of knowing, but it also restricts those outside NJ who are licensed there from opening multijurisdictional practices.

@BTannebaum: Unfortunately, telling your state Bar that you have a laptop and a Vente Latte so leave me alone, doesn’t work

@StephKimbro: Suggested Minimum Requirements for Law Firms Delivering Legal Services Online from ABA elawyering task force:

@22Twts @stephkimbro You’ve addressed in part before, but what are the measureable benefits to clients when they hire a virtual law office?

@StephKimbro: Agreed. It is a matter of educating the state bars and ethics committees about the technology as well as other attorneys.

@BTannebaum: I think state Bars overregulate RT @22twts: @btannebaum and do you agree with the NJ Opinion?

@BTannebaum: I think the NJ opinion is protectionist and fear based, and I don’t subscribe to those concepts

@StephKimbro: Education to state bars & ethics committees re: the use of tech to work w/pro se litigants and for pro bono cases also productive.

@BTannebaum: If a lawyer wants to practice law a certain way, then get the state Bar to provide rules that help lawyers comply with basics

@StephKimbro: Benefits to clients: convenience of 24/7 access, paying online, budgeting for legal fees, more control over their legal matter.

@BTannebaum: VLO’s seem to demand that state Bars get in lock step with their desires - advocate for change, youre lawyers, aren’t you?

@StephKimbro: It lessens the #1 malpractice complaint that the atty is not responding to client promptly. They just go online for status of case.

@BTannebaum: Remember, it took a long time to get electronic filing in many places

@BTannebaum: @stephkimbro I think that’s a stretch to say that VLO’s necessarily better communicate with clients. No proof.

@StephKimbro: And many ethics opinions still reference email as the latest tech for LPM. It’s going to take time.

@StephKimbro: I think the level of communication depends on your client base and your own comfort communicating online.

@BTannebaum: Bingo RT @stephkimbro: And many ethics opinions still reference email as the latest tech for LPM. It’s going to take time.

@BTannebaum: Truth? I bet most VLO’s are less than 10 years out. Get short shrift from state Bars

@22Twts @stephkimbro what about benefits that go beyond better communication? What do VLOs bring clients that traditional firms may not?

@StephKimbro: Legal services can be unbundled at more affordable, fixed fee prices. Clients don’t have to take time off work/arrange childcare.

@StephKimbro: The key benefit for clients is the security. Yes, many attys use tech, but is it the same level of online security to protect data?

@22Twts @btannebaum What do you think? Could VLO practices improve representation, cost/value ratio, delivery of & access to legal services?

@BTannebaum: @22twts I think representation is the word to be defined with VLO’s

@StephKimbro: VLOs provide often higher security for confidential data than what typical firm can afford to spend on IT support, servers, etc.

@BTannebaum: It will never work in criminal practice, or even a serious litigation case

@BTannebaum: I see VLO’s as document banks, with a lawyer on the other side

@BTannebaum: I think the security argument is yet to be concluded

@BTannebaum: Don’t tell me that it’s all safe in a VLO. I’m not buying it

@StephKimbro: I agree. Probably not for criminal practice unless integrated in the practice management tools of a brick & mortar firm.

@BTannebaum: I’m all for access to legal services, but I’m also in this as a profession, not a sales gig

@BTannebaum: @stephkimbro brick and mortar with tech, is brick and mortar with tech. It is not a VLO, in any sense.

@22Twts @stephkimbro But you must agree that working virtually increases risk of compromised representation. What should clients watch for?

@StephKimbro: To remain competitive in future, we will have to find ways to market our services that match what clients are searching online for.

@StephKimbro: Attorneys need to educate their online clients about the secure use of the client portal, protecting passwords and usernames.

@StephKimbro: It is the same level of security and form of access that our clients have with their banks and other investment & govt. entities.

@BTannebaum: @stephkimbro I market by doing a good job, not SEO. Some lawyers still do word of mouth

@StephKimbro: Likewise, attys w/VLOs have jurisdiction checks to avoid UPL, conflict of interest checks, other processes built into the VLOs.

@22Twts @stephkimbro How can potential clients find out which VLOs have these checks and processes? What should they look for?

@StephKimbro: Attys need to research the SaaS provider of the software & review the SLA, whether it’s 1 software or using many to piecemeal a VLO.

@StephKimbro: Ask about data return and retention policies, confidentiality, access of data, server details, third-party contracts, etc.

@StephKimbro: Clients of VLOs need to read the clickwrap agreements when they register online, understand nature of unbundled legal services.

@22Twts @btannebaum what’s your take on risks for clients? What’s different about VLOs?

@BTannebaum: @22twts I think there are a lot of unknowns about VLO security.

@BTannebaum: I laugh when anyone says a machine is totally secure, but I’m just suspicious that way

@BTannebaum: I await the day a VLO signs in to their client files and finds nothing

@BTannebaum: I hope that VLO’s evolve, as long as no privileges are compromised. It’s all about the client

@StephKimbro: Nothing is ever 100% secure from a VLO to your office desktop. Instead we all find ways to mitigate risk.

@BTannebaum: Unfortunately, I think a lot of the demand for VLO’s is not from clients, but from lawyers looking to practice on a laptop

@BTannebaum: I know there is a demand for VLO’s

@BTannebaum: I just don’t think the demand is as strong as VLO advocates would like us to think

@BTannebaum: RIght RT @stephkimbro: Nothing is ever 100% secure from a VLO to your office desktop. Instead we all find ways to mitigate risk.

@22Twts @btannebaum and do you think the demand for VLOs, because it’s from lawyers, should be resisted rather than met?

@BTannebaum: @22twts I think that lawyers need to stop thinking that state Bars are there to do what they demand

@StephKimbro: BTW, there are other processes built into a VLO besides the clickwrap to formally establish the atty/client relationship.

@BTannebaum: We have lawyers that are laid off, lazy, entitled, and want what they want. They never went to law school to be lawyers

@BTannebaum: There is a business side of law, but those that want it to be a business, need to understand it’s a profession

@StephKimbro: I think most attys go to their state bars for guidance on VLOs and the state bar doesn’t know enough about it to provide that.

@BTannebaum: We can not make this profession nothing more than a one stop doc shop online

@BTannebaum: If people want to buy documents, they can go to Office Depot

@StephKimbro: Regardless of whether an attorney wants to use a VLO or not, the option needs to be there b/c its a solution to a public need.

@BTannebaum: This is a profession for serving clients, not ourselves

@StephKimbro: VLOs may actually help prevent it from being a “one stop doc shop” by providing an alternative to LegalZoom way to work w/clients.

@BTannebaum: @stephkimbro I agree, we should have VLO’s, and they should follow the rules, like brick & mortar lawyers

@22Twts Thanks both for an interesting discussion. Last Q: VLOs. Game changer or business as usual? Your thoughts in one tweet @stephkimbro?

@StephKimbro: The game has already changed our business. It is a matter of the legal profession stepping up to the plate.

@22Twts And @btannebaum, what do you think? Game-changer? Business as usual? Something else?

@BTannebaum: VLO’s could be a game changer for certain areas - if VLO lawyers advocate for that change, just like lawyers are supposed to do.

@22Twts Thank you both @stephkimbro and @btannebaum for sharing your perspectives today, and to @ABAJournal for hosting this dialog.

@BTannebaum: @StephKimbro @22twts thank you both, very much. All the best

@StephKimbro: @22twts @btannebaum Thank you for a lively discussion today!

@22Twts And of course, thanks to all of tweeps who followed and chimed in with their insights: you made this a very interesting discussion

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