Libraries may be nearly obsolete, but somehow we can’t rid ourselves of Melvil Dewey’s fetish for classifying books. We cabin books into narrow, topical silos – the business book, the practice management book, the substantive law treatise – and gravitate to those directly related to our interests, while ignoring the others.
If I didn’t blog about issues generally of interest to solos, and if Stephanie Kimbro were not a trusted colleague, I must confess that her recent book, Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online would have met a similar fate. Though I readily acknowledge that online legal services are important to our profession since they expand affordable access to law, working with clients exclusively online to assist with preparation of wills or incorporations isn’t my cup of tea – and I wouldn’t have paid attention to the book. But – and I cannot emphasize this enough: Virtual Law Practice is about much, much, MUCH more than simply using technology to deliver unbundled services. It is a book that advises lawyers about selecting and using technology responsibly and ethically in the 21st Century. Equally, importantly, Virtual Law Practice provides the tools to help in the form of robust, sample agreements and extensive ethics research.
The Virtual Law Practice consists of six parts (though they’re called chapters). Chapter 1 defines a what a virtual law practice is (an online portal devoted to delivery of legal services on line and describes the benefits that a virtual law practice can provide both to clients and lawyers. Chapter 2 is devoted largely to setting up a virtual law practice, whether to operate it as a stand-alone or adjunct to a traditional brick-and-mortar and discusses unbundling and document automation, which is used by many virtual firms that deliver unbundled services. This chapter also includes the personal experiences of two virtual law firms.
Chapter 4 talks about the costs associated with setting up a virtual law office, expectations of earnings and ROI analysis. Too many lawyers think that they can just throw up a website and declare themselves open for business on the Internet, only to discover that it didn’t work out. No surprise. Like any other venture, a virtual law firm must be thought out – and guess what? There are indeed costs involved to set it up and market it and depending upon how much you want to earn, those costs may be more than you expected.
Chapters 3 and 6 are the ones most useful for lawyers who don’t necessarily operate a “virtual law firm,” but who may work from home or use technology in their practice. These chapters talk about technology choices, data security, malpractice issues and the meaning of unauthorized practice at a time where technology is eroding geographic boundaries. For an ethics nerd like myself, these chapters were a joy because Stephanie did all of the heavy lifting on the ethics research, citing dozens of opinions on ethics of defining the scope of unbundling, virtual firms, electronic data storage, cloud computing, credit card payments and much more. What a resource for any 21st century lawyer.
Another valuable resource are the sample retainer agreement for a web-based virtual law practice providing legal services online, as well as in conjunction with a physical firm. Again, these sample agreements are thorough and robust (not like the junk you find online free) and contain clauses related to copyright and website terms of service equally applicable to any firm.
Of course, like any good book review, I need to comment on what might be improved. First – and this is a discussion I’ve had with Stephanie in the past – I am still not sure why virtual law practice does not encompass virtual firms like Virtual Law Partners ore Rimon Legal. Though these firms do not actively market themselves as providing legal services online, that’s what they do in practice. Moreover, many of the considerations related to UPL and technology choices (and even networks or collaboration, which Stephanie sees as promising for virtual firms) also apply to these firms – which are also moving not so much towards unbundling, but more commoditized versions of service. Including these business models seems to make sense.
Second, while Stephanie does a great job of interviewing a broad swath of lawyers and consultants with an interest in virtual practice (disclosure: I was interviewed), there’s one voice missing; the clients. Granted, it would have been very difficult and somewhat of an imposition to interview clients about their experience with online practices. But given that the book contends that virtual practices offer a client-centric way of doing business, I’d be interested in hearing from clients first hand.
Third, there’s the matter of ABA pricing. At $79 a pop, ABA books aren’t cheap (and I say this as an ABA author myself) Still, this book is worth the price.
These are my only three gripes, and they’re far outweighed by this book’s multiple strengths. But perhaps the greatest service that Stephanie has provided is that with her serious analysis, she gives credibility to the concept of virtual law firms. Stephanie sets a high standard for, and hopefully will send packing, the fly-by-night lawyers who think that operating a virtual firm involves nothing more than setting up a website on AOL with an email and sitting back in their pajamas as the profits roll in.
If you’re looking for hype about the virtual law practice, don’t waste you time with Stephanie’s book because you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for solid help about how you can harness the power of technology ethically and responsibly to improve the quality of legal services that we provide and expand access to justice, then you’ve come to the right place.
For another review, see <A HREF = “http://www.masslomap.org/uncategorized/a-review-of-stephanie-kimbros-virtual-law-practice/”>Mass LOMAP</A> site.