Chances are, you’re at least vaguely familiar with the term “virtual lawyer”, but what is a virtual lawyer and what does it mean to move your practice online? In this episode of The Florida Bar Podcast, hosts Christine Bilbrey and Jonathon Israel talk to Richard Granat about what a virtual law practice looks like, the major drivers in the switch to online services, and the learning requirements of making your own practice a virtual one. To clarify, technology should be used in conjunction with a traditional practice rather than lawyers simply disappearing behind a screen. According to Richard, legal professionals should establish their business model and find the online resources to meet their particular needs rather than simply diving into technology.
Richard Granat is a lawyer and a recognized expert on the delivery of legal services over the internet. He has served as Co-Director of the Center for Law Practice Technology, Florida Coastal School of Law.
The Florida Bar Podcast
What it Really Means to be a Virtual Lawyer
Intro: Welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, where we highlight the latest trends in law office and law practice management to help you run your law firm, brought to you by the Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Christine Bilbrey: Hello and welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast brought to you by the Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. We are so glad you are joining us. This is Christine Bilbrey. I am a Practice Management Advisor at PRI and one of the hosts for today’s show, which is being recorded from our offices in Tallahassee, Florida. My co-host is Jonathon Israel.
Jonathon Israel: Hello. I am Jonathon Israel and I am the Director of the Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute. Our goal at PRI is to assist Florida attorneys with running the business side of their law practices. We will be focusing on a different aspect of technology each month and will carry that theme through our newsletter and website, with related tech tips and articles.
Christine Bilbrey: So this month at PRI our topic is the virtual law practice. Joining us today is attorney Richard Granat. Richard developed one of the very first virtual law firms in the United States and is the Founder of DirectLaw. A company that provides a web service for solos and small firms that enables them to deliver legal services over the Internet. He is also the Co-Chair of the eLlawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association.
Welcome to the show Richard.
Richard Granat: Good afternoon Christine.
Christine Bilbrey: So Richard, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and what your definition is of what makes a law practice virtual.
Richard Granat: Around 2003 it occurred to me that there would be a major shift in the way in which legal services would be delivered, particularly as you have a new generation of clients who expect their lawyers to be online and to work with their lawyers online. So I came up with the concept of essentially a virtual law firm or a virtual law practice which not only do I define, but the eLawyering Task Force of the ABA has come up with a definition, which stipulates that the concept of a virtual law firm is one where there’s a secure client portal that’s attached to a law firm’s website.
So the website becomes the pathway to a secure space, where data passes from the web browser to the server in an encrypted format. Without that client portal you don’t really have what I call secure communications, so you can’t really protect the lawyer-client privilege.
So the real essence of a virtual law firm concept is to have access to the secure client portal where lots of things happen between lawyer and client. Most law firms today still have what we call a passive website, which is not interactive. Our estimate is not more than about 15% of solos and small firms actually have this client portal concept in place.
Yet, as we have what I call this new generation of clients who have the Internet in their DNA, they really expect lawyers to be able to work with them and connect with them online. I mean after all, the idea of a client portal is when you sign on to Charles Schwab or Bank of America or any one of a number of sites, you are now in a secure space, which is essentially a client portal. We will see more and more firms adopt this concept and in the fullness of time I believe that all law firms will have this client portal concept.
Christine Bilbrey: So if I am a client of a virtual attorney, what functions should I expect to be able to do through that client portal?
Richard Granat: Well, you would be able to review documents that a lawyer has prepared for you. You might be able to upload a document for the lawyer’s review. You might be able to pay bills online. You will be able to communicate with your lawyer 24×7.
More importantly, we are seeing new applications which increase the law firm’s productivity and enable the client to actually do things within the client portal, such as fill out a set of questions through the web browser, which automatically creates a document ready for the lawyer’s review. So all of these things really happen within this space.
And I would probably like to make a distinction between this concept of what I call the mobile lawyer or the untethered lawyers, because sometimes lawyers think that they are virtual lawyers just because let’s say they work out of their houses and they meet a client down at Starbucks and they work from a cellphone. That’s a different idea. That’s the idea of what I call a mobile lawyer or an untethered lawyer. But unless the lawyer has this client portal in place, they really can’t deliver what I call legal services online.
And we are seeing, in addition to communication and collaboration functions, the introduction of legal applications, which we call forms of eLawyering, which have the impact of increasing a lawyer’s productivity and enable them to maybe maintain their profit margins and to do this in a way which is totally secure and ethically compliant.
I should also say that when you arrive at a law firm’s website, if you see, usually in the upper right hand corner a space for a login, for a username, password, then you know that law firm has access to a client portal. It’s through the username and password that each client has their own, let’s call I their legal affairs space, through which they work with that law firm.
Jonathon Israel: Richard, I mean, staying with the client portal theme, if I am a solo or small firm attorney and I have set up my website, where would I start looking to get a client portal, and it obviously doesn’t just come with your website, you need some other technologies behind it to drive that portal?
Richard Granat: Yeah. It’s what we call a Software-as-a-Service and the client portals are now part of the application suite that almost all the major practice management vendors offer, such as Clio, which I think works with the Florida Bar, Rocket Matter; in my case PracticePanther, almost all of these practice management vendors have a form of a client portal. They may or may not have all the functions, so what you really want to do is take a look at and see what functions are built into that client portal, so that it will serve the purposes of your individual practice.
For example, many of them don’t necessarily have what we call a web enabled document automation function, but almost all of them have the capacity to communicate with clients online or to certainly pay bills online and have more enhanced communications functions.
So we now have many thousands of subscribers to these practice management solutions and only in the last year have most of the major vendors added on this client portal concept. So I think that’s really a good place to start, and by talking to the representatives of those companies you can get a real good insight into how their particular client portal works and how it can map against the business model for your particular kind of practice.
So each practice is going to be different in terms of the way in which they migrate to an online presence. And a way of thinking about this is the platform for the delivery of legal services is beginning to migrate from in person, in the office, one-to-one meetings, to the Internet itself as the platform for working with clients. And when the platform changes lots of other thing change. Those who don’t really adapt to those changes will actually find them to be less competitive over time. So the Internet itself becomes a delivery mechanism for offering legal services.
Jonathon Israel: So Richard, other than the practice area that an attorney is practicing, are there other factors that are driving this move to the virtual?
Richard Granat: The major driver is the changes in client behavior. So if for example, I have a client base which is not web savvy and is an older clientele, they are not going to adopt to this model, but as you have a millennial generation matures to the point where they have legal problems, they really have an expectation that their lawyers are going to work with them online.
There are other things or other factors that really relate to law firm productivity and changes in practice patterns which suggest that those are also drivers of this movement towards being, I use the word online rather than virtual, because when you are online it enables you to use Internet-based legal applications which can have the impact of increasing productivity in the law firm and also enabling the law firm maybe to offer services at a fixed price and still maintain their profit margins.
We have also seen a trend towards what we call unbundled legal services for a fixed fee, and that can be architected better actually online than offline.
So we have seen boutique law firms for example offer bundles of legal services, like an uncontested divorce or a marital separation agreement, which includes the forms bundled with legal advice for a fixed fee. So that’s a new pricing model, but it’s made possible by using the Internet as a platform.
So when we talk about virtual law practice, it’s not just that you are kind of in the Internet; it basically empowers the use of applications, which increase the productivity of the lawyer, because part of the lawyer’s work is now digitized or automated.
So when we talk to law firms and they are thinking about moving into, let’s call it the online space, one of the first questions we ask of the law firm is what part of your practice can be automated and lends itself to online delivery? So there may be certain kinds of practices that can’t be automated at all or don’t lend itself to online delivery, maybe for example a lawyer who does appellate work and all they do is oral argument. And so there are certain kinds of practices which don’t necessarily lend itself to this approach.
Whereas on the other hand, transactional practices, like estates, family law, maybe immigration and bankruptcy law, practices which are very labor information intensive, which other vendors have created legal applications which help automate the legal information component within a legal task enables that lawyer to basically streamline and automate those aspects of its practice that can be automated, and that leads to leaps in productivity and the maintenance of profit margins in the time of really high competition.
So, on one hand you have changes in consumer behavior which is driving change, but you also have changes in market conditions and the nature of law practice. The idea also that consumers want fixed fees, unbundled legal services, want the lawyer to be online, all those factors become drivers. But each practice is different, so each lawyer has to think about their business model and what aspects of legal service should be delivered online.
Christine Bilbrey: Are virtual attorneys, are they attracting clients in a different way than a brick and mortar attorney or are they using traditional marketing methods?
Richard Granat: I don’t like to really separate out the concept of what you are calling a virtual attorney from a regular attorney or whatever that means, because I think that every law firm should have an aspect of their practice that’s online. I have not seen what you might call a purely virtual attorney, somebody who doesn’t have any physical office, they do have a client portal, but they never see anybody face-to-face. That’s an unusual kind of practice to be successful at, because you have to know how to really do Internet marketing.
You need to know how to drive a great deal of traffic to your site so you are found in the search engines. If you don’t have the traffic, you don’t get the prospects, and the prospects don’t convert to clients.
I have many lawyers who kind of think — they come to us and they say they want to put up a purely virtual site because they want to retire in Florida or someplace like that, and they think that somehow they are going to get rich quick. And I try and disabuse them of those notions, because getting visibility with the search engines is actually difficult, and getting the kind of traffic that you need can really be a challenge.
So we argue and we support the idea that you really want to use this concept of being online as an adjunct to your traditional practice, which enhances the client experiences and delivers other benefits to your existing client base. I think it’s a challenge for lawyers to have what we call a virtual law firm pure play and think that they are going to just acquire thousands of new clients by being online. We think that’s unrealistic.
Rather, we think the best approach is to say, I have a traditional practice. I have developed it in my community. I am a trusted advisor. How can I now add an online presence to enhance the client experience and make it more effective?
Christine Bilbrey: And you are talking about all the benefits of the clients, which one thing is just convenience, so they are not having to come to the lawyer’s office for every single signing.
Richard Granat: That’s one.
Christine Bilbrey: Okay. But do you get questions about the validity of eSignatures, which ones hold up and what things can you absolutely not use these signatures for through your portal?
Richard Granat: Not every portal supports eSignatures. The eSignatures is a wholly separate set of technologies and eSignature has been validated, so we don’t really see eSignatures as an issue.
What comes up as a larger issue is authenticating the client. So if it’s a purely virtual client, and I have never really seen that client, how do we know that that client is really that client? So there are techniques that are built into some of these client portal applications that enable the lawyer to authenticate with the person who they are actually dealing with.
We know, for example, some estates and trusts law firms which work with purely virtual clients, but they are not present to supervise the signing of the will. So they provide instructions and then they request that the client have the signature notarized and they request that notarized signature be faxed back to the office for the lawyer’s permanent files. So there are strategies that you can use to authenticate who the client is.
Now, I have never actually seen a great deal of abuse compared to the potential convenience and ease that virtual transactions support. And as I have been arguing, law firms should be using these technologies with their existing clients so they know who their existing clients are. It’s rarer that the law firm is dealing with somebody who they don’t actually know.
Now, I still maintain, for example, my own law firm up in Maryland that’s a virtual law practice that has a particular niche in serving in this case pro se litigants in family law matters. So I don’t know every client, but I end up actually talking to them on the phone or communicating with them in a way so that I can authenticate them and know who I am actually dealing with.
So those strategies will depend on the particular kind of practice. It’s not going to be one set of rules for every kind of law practice. We have many different kinds of law practices and each of them will dictate a particular online strategy.
I want to reemphasize this point, when I first started out the idea of a virtual lawyer was really unique, but the way this idea and the technologies have evolved, every law firm ultimately will have what we call an online presence. It’s not as if a virtual lawyer is going to become a separate category by itself. All law firms will in the fullness of time to be competitive, will have some form of online capability of dealing with their clients.
Christine Bilbrey: And so that’s a good point. You are very comfortable with these technologies. What do you say to someone who has only delivered legal services in the traditional manner and wants to be able to offer this to their clients that are asking for it, where do you have them start? Is there a steep learning curve or what advice do you give them?
Richard Granat: I think there’s a little bit of a learning curve. Some lawyers don’t adapt to it well. I mean, I still see some lawyers where they have their secretaries read them their email, that’s because they don’t go into their email, and I think many of those lawyers will frankly age out of the profession.
There are sources for learning about this. ABA has many sources through its Law Practice Management Division; the states have many learning resources. We don’t think that it requires a great deal of learning, and more importantly, for me, on a personal note what it means to be a professional is that every decade or so you have to really reinvent yourself. Being a professional means reinventing yourself and continuing to learn. There’s nothing that’s static about the law and you have to continue to learn about the law.
I think the same thing holds true for technology. So there’s a learning requirement and we just step up to the plate and do it. There will be some lawyers who don’t feel the necessity to doing it because of their practice. So in those cases the business model of the law firm will really dictate to what extent new technologies are going to be incorporated into their particular business model.
I mean just take for example all the new tools that are being used in discovery and eDiscovery. Litigation has been completely transformed in the 20-year period, and that’s just a subset of technologies. Today if you didn’t use and know how to use advanced litigation technology you would probably be guilty of malpractice, and clients expect the lawyers to use the best technology and to translate the benefits of those technologies frankly into pricing and use in terms of the client experience.
Jonathon Israel: So step one, if you are not already, is to get a practice management software, and step two is to figure out how to set up your client portal using that practice management software.
Richard Granat: I would say step one, before you move into that, is to think through your business model and the kind of target markets you want to hit and kind of think about what aspect of your practice is going to lend itself to automation.
So after you go through the business planning process, then that leads to the selection of the tech tools that are going to be used to support that business planning process, and you can do it in small steps. You don’t have to go from full-blown, you can start in small steps and move down a path, but you have to really know where you are going in terms of that path. And that’s going to be dictated essentially by your business planning process and it’s going to be market-driven, depending on the kind of clients that you want to serve will probably dictate how intensive you want to be on the virtual law firm side.
So I don’t argue that you just jump into technology; I really think it’s important that you step back. You think about your own business model, your billing system, how you are going to bill. So for example, if you are moving away from billing by the hour, which may not be appropriate for a certain kind of clientele, that’s going to have implications for the way in which you create particular kinds of legal services, and then that in turn will have implications for the technology tools that you can use to streamline the delivery of those legal services.
And if you are going to be online, then you go into a selection process of adopting a client portal, figuring out how to use it, and then actually when you reach that point, also letting your clients know and marketing that as another differentiator within your law practice, because it will enhance your market position by letting your clients know that you have a new capability, that they can work with you 24/7 online.
We work with a law firm, for example a bankruptcy law firm in Baltimore, and after he added this online capability he found that the reach of his practice extended all throughout the whole State of Maryland for a certain kind of clientele.
So he had like software engineers down in Rockville, Maryland traveling up to Baltimore for — he still had a face-to-face meeting with them for about three hours, but after that face-to-face meeting everything else was done online. So he was able to target both the — not only the right clientele, but he was able to expand his reach throughout the whole State of Maryland by using these technologies.
Christine Bilbrey: That’s an excellent point. So you have to figure out exactly the best fit for the part of the delivery it’s going to work for you.
Richard Granat: That’s right.
Christine Bilbrey: So for some people the idea of being a virtual attorney is brand-new, but we know it has been around for a while, so it’s continuing to evolve. And I read recently that attorney Chad Burton said that in the future he believes that practicing law virtually will just be referred to as practicing law.
Richard Granat: Yeah, right.
Christine Bilbrey: And that some attorneys are trying to get away from the term virtual attorney because they feel that it sounds like they are not a real attorney. Have you heard other names out there? Has this become a more common arrangement?
Richard Granat: No, I agree with Chad on that point. I think the word virtual attorney is a confusing term and it tends to get confused with the lawyer who simply doesn’t have an office and is working from their cellphone, whereas we focus on this concept of actually delivering legal services over the Internet.
I haven’t heard other terms, but I think as Chad said, which is the same, I share that point of view that every lawyer will have — many law firms, put it that way, not every lawyer, many law firms will have this online capability and the challenge is to figure out how to incorporate it into your particular kind of law practice and how to make a difference.
I mean we see some very precocious lawyers who are actually developing their own legal applications which are delivered online. There was a law firm out on the West Coast which in narrow niche is helping people using a digital application get off from traffic tickets. There is another one that’s working in the immigration area. We see them popping up, but most of the innovation on the software side is not coming from the law firm itself, they are coming from third party vendors.
So what you will see is the potential to incorporate some of these applications within the client portal concept that creates a different and more satisfying client experience that’s very efficient.
So these ideas really do relate to the core business model concepts of law firm profitability, of law firm efficiency, of law firm productivity. And if you think about it, software has transformed every other industry. It’s transformed the travel agent industry, it’s transformed the banking industry, and the legal profession will not be immune from these transformations. And it’s the Internet which continues to have this kind of disruptive impact on every industry sector.
I mean, the news last week was now about the retail industry being upended by Amazon. So it’s true, there are certain service industries which are less affected and one of them has been the legal profession. But we are now seeing new applications which get delivered online, which will be very transformative of the way in which legal services get delivered.
Christine Bilbrey: So you are encouraging everyone to begin to embrace these technologies. It’s healthy. Like you said, if you are a competent attorney, you are going to keep up to date.
Richard Granat: Right.
Christine Bilbrey: Thank you so much. It looks like we have reached the end of our program and I want to thank Richard Granat for joining us today.
Richard Granat: Thank you very much.
Christine Bilbrey: Richard, if our listeners have additional questions or wish to follow up with you, how can they reach you?
Richard Granat: They can just go to the HYPERLINK “http://www.directlaw.com” directlaw.com website and there are tools there that they can reach me. And we have a learning site that’s part of it, which helps people go up the learning curve about these concepts. We are in an age where learning is critical.
Christine Bilbrey: Excellent. So this has been another edition of The Florida Bar Podcast, brought to you by the Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. I am Christine Bilbrey.
Jonathon Israel: And I am Jonathon Israel. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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