Is Going “Virtual” the Future of Law?

This question is posed time and again.  In conversation.  In group discussions.  In articles.  In passing.  In all seriousness.  The increasing interest in virtual practice has given rise to a host of concerns and a quest for answers.  It’s a question that can be (and has been) addressed from many vantage points.  I don’t suggest an answer to this question.  However, I do suggest that consideration of the history and evolution of law practice might shed light on the direction of its future.

Traditional law practice

How many of you remember what it was like to practice law 25 years ago?  Letters typed on a typewriter, with carbon paper, eloquently worded with the utmost courtesy and professionalism.  Beautifully articulated handwritten notes.  Boxes upon boxes of documents in the war room.  Color-coded files in the file room.  Even then, legal work wasn’t exactly a nine-to-five job.

It was actually quite easy to work virtually before computers.  Load up the file(s) you need to work on for the evening or weekend and head out.  Of course, it wasn’t called that then.  The concept of working “virtually,” or remotely, isn’t new; what’s new is the technology used to complete and deliver the work.  And, of course, the term “virtual” has new meaning in a world now totally connected through technology.

Cometh virtual attorneys and virtual paralegals

The terms “virtual attorney” and “virtual paralegal” reflect the evolution of an existing group of independent professionals. Attorneys and paralegals have been supporting firms from their home offices for many, many years.  (The first time I offered services from my home office was in 1998.)  We used to be referred to as “contract” paralegals and attorneys or, simply, independent contractors.  More recently, we have been (and still are) referred to as “freelance” paralegals and attorneys.  Now, with our virtual world, the term “virtual” is becoming commonplace.

The titles “contract” and “freelance” accurately denote the status of these professionals who may, arguably, be as likely to work on-site as they are to work remotely.  At the same time, “virtual” professionals are as likely to be telecommute employees as they are independent contractors.  However, I suspect the terms “virtual attorney” and “virtual paralegal” will increase in popularity as demand for this support continues to increase and will generally be understood as referring to “independent contractors working in a virtual setting.”

Over the past few years, technology has increased both public and professional awareness of this group of professionals.  Because our society is so connected through multiple modes of media, the world wide web, and social networking, the visibility of virtual attorneys and paralegals has increased immensely.  Before this virtual world in which we now live, there wasn’t any media outlet that made this information easily accessible or widely known.  The only way someone might know about an individual working remotely is if s/he were aware of such a professional locally.

Similarly, as technology has become increasingly available to both businesses and individuals, this group of professionals has expanded as has the interest in utilizing their services.  I do believe the practice of working virtually in the legal field will continue to grow tremendously and become a business standard over time as technology continues to offer more ways to do so, but it is not a new practice.  The practice of working remotely, or “virtually,” simply continues to evolve with technology.

And now . . . virtual law firms

Supporting attorneys and firms virtually is one thing, and it’s certainly not new.  In doing so, we know that today’s technology allows us to remotely complete virtually every aspect of a legal matter, all the way to court filings.  (Yes, pun intended.)  Nor is it difficult to find solo practitioners who practice solely from their home-office.  Certain practice areas have minimal, in-person client contact, making such a business model beneficial for the practice.  The client simply goes to the attorney’s home-office for any necessary meetings.  Some attorneys practicing from their home-office pay nominal monthly fees for a conference room at a local business building or share office space with other attorneys to have a separate place for client meetings.  However, these practices are different from the concept of delivering web-based legal services (i.e., virtual law practices).

Considering the evolution of our work in the legal field, virtual law practice could certainly be considered the next logical step.  From supporting attorneys remotely to running solo practices from home, it makes sense there might be an interest in creating a wholly-virtual practice through the use of technology.  And it makes sense that solo practitioners would be among the first to envelop this practice.  In fact, North Carolina solo practitioner Stephanie Kimbro has been at the forefront of, and continues to be a primary voice for web-based legal services.  More and more, though, entire firms are developing virtual law practices and offering web-based legal services across many areas of law.  In practicing virtually, some areas of law are clearly more conducive to virtual practice than others.  Can virtual delivery of legal services occur across all practice areas?

Where will we go from here?

Look around; surf the web.  You’ll find information and articles both for and against the virtual practice of law.  If you perform a historic search, you’ll find the volume of information on this topic has and continues to grow substantially; almost exponentially now.  It becomes more of a “hot” topic as time progresses.  Even the American Bar Association and a growing number of states, including North Carolina and Pennsylvania, are beginning to review and opine on the virtual practice of law.  No matter the outcome, there is no doubt that the way law is practiced has evolved with technology and society and will continue to do so.  It’s important to remember, though, no matter how “virtual” the practice of law becomes, it is about providing people with solutions and, as such, people will always be involved – to one extent or another.

Sound off below

So, what do you think?  Is going “virtual” the future of law?  Do you think it will happen?  To what extent?  In what fields of law?

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