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Book Review: Virtual Law Practice: A Useful Guide for Virtually Any Kind of Law Practice

by Carolyn Elefant on March 17, 2011 · 8 comments

in Book Review, Tech & Web

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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.

  • http://www.corinnetampas.com Corinne A. Tampas

    Stephanie Kimbro is indeed a pioneer in the virtual practice of law, and I agree with your reveiw wholeheartedly. However, and this is the ABA’s decision, I find it ironic that this book is not offered in an electronic format given the subject matter. But then, whoever said that the ABA was ahead of the curve?

  • shg

    Not that I doubt your integrity at all, but given some of the highly controversial issues surroundindg VLOs, I would be very interested in a review by someone who was not a “trusted coleague,” and perhaps inclined to scrutinize some of the underlying concepts, like unbundling, more closely.

    I know Stephanie didn’t send me a copy to review. I guess I will find out whether she sent a review copy to anyone who was not part of her “trusted colleague” network. If not, I will be constrained to assume the worst, that she doesn’t think her book can pass muster.

  • shg

    Not that I doubt your integrity at all, but given some of the highly controversial issues surroundindg VLOs, I would be very interested in a review by someone who was not a “trusted coleague,” and perhaps inclined to scrutinize some of the underlying concepts, like unbundling, more closely.

    I know Stephanie didn’t send me a copy to review. I guess I will find out whether she sent a review copy to anyone who was not part of her “trusted colleague” network. If not, I will be constrained to assume the worst, that she doesn’t think her book can pass muster.

  • Stephanie Kimbro

    Thank you for generous review of my book. I’m trying to keep the appendix of ethics opinions updated on a page of my blog. This area evolves to quickly that there are already opinions that need to be included in there.

    I did talk to the ABA about publishing it in digital format but they are not doing that with their books yet. There is even a waiting period before it can be sold on Amazon.com outside of the ABA bookstore. Kind of out of my control. However, for my first book, I found it very reassuring to have my writing go through the ABA/LPM process of review by other attorneys before going out there.

    To answer one of your questions, Carolyn, about why VLP or Rimon Law were not included in the book, at the time, those firms focused more on online collaboration between attorneys in the virtual firm, rather than on the actual online delivery of legal services to clients. It is my understanding that Rimon Law has now created a client portal and they both may be making use of client extranets, but the focus of the delivery and methods of client development are not via web-based technology. I was trying to make the focus of the book more on the delivery to clients. If I have the opportunity to update the book I will expand it to include more examples of hybrid structures of virtual law firms as well as more multijurisdictional, multi-attorney practices.

    I should have thought to include comments in the book from my clients. It’s funny because some of them will work the entire time with me online and then snail mail me thank you cards. As more attorneys begin practicing law online we should be able to get better statistics on usage and client satisfaction. At this point, we are still working with first adopters of the technology so the data is not there, to my knowledge anyway.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Scott,
    You’re right of course to call into question my potential bias. And someone should have sent you a review copy if only because you’re the only blogger out there who actually reads these books (well I do read them) and actually follows through on a review (though I am sure that you have more important things to do than to become an unpaid online reviewer).
    You do raise a good point about unbundling, which I didn’t focus on in my review and deserves thought. Unbundling and virtual practice are often viewed as complementary. At the same time, because the practice is virtual and a lawyer might not have as much contact with a client, it is even more important to explain the scope (and limits) of unbundled service and Stephanie makes that point in the book. Still, I suppose there is always a chance that people may not understand what they are getting. I also think that some matters like incorporation, wills and one-time transactions – have already been treated as unbundled for some time and do not pose as much risk. If this book talked about unbundling capital cases, I’d be alarmed – but it steers clear of more controversial unbundling topics.
    Finally, colleague or not, Stephanie is the real deal. Her book has 12 pages worth of annotated ethics opinions on topics like unbundling, unauthorized practice, and other ethics issues that can come up in virtual practice. Stephanie is also a stickler for security – she does not view email as adequately secure – and believes that lawyers should have a secure portal.
    The problem is that virtual law practice is prone to abuse. I think this book will help stop it but who knows.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Stephanie,
    I am all for working with a publisher, even though it adds to the cost. I think that both Solo by Choice and my Social Media book were much better as a result of having editors review the work. Also, putting books into digital format right away can make them unprofitable for smaller publishers. So not going to ebook immediately is actually one area where I don’t fault the ABA.

    Carolyn

  • shg

    I’ve only heard great things about Stephanie, and I’m sure that she, as both a pioneer in VLO as well as a lawyer deeply concerned about ethics, is a paragon in VLO. But some of the issues remain controversial, and the execution of some things like unbundling remains problematic.

    These are all things we’ve talked about in the past, and I wonder whether this book deals with them, and confronts them, as you did in your Solo By Choice with the significant negatives of a solo practice. You faced the bad and the good. I hope Stephanie’s book does the same.

  • Stephanie Kimbro

    I dedicated a chapter to the ethics issues that come up in this form of law practice along with an appendix of state by state ethics opinions related to the topic. I’m trying to keep an updated list of ethics ops on my blog.

    Unbundling does raise a separate set of ethics issues and best practices that have to be followed. Because unbundling lends itself so well to a VLO it is something that a virtual lawyer needs to understand. I cover it in the book (there is also a sample limited scope engagement agreement in the back), but honestly the topic of unbundling alone could fill its own book. I just wrote a 40ish page ebook on unbundling – covering the practice from both the traditional delivery and when delivered online using tech. And I’ve been giving free webinars on the topic of unbundling this past month as well. I’ll be posting the ebook for free up on my blog.

    Also, MHConnected agreed to host an “unbundling event” at the end of April and I am pulling in some seasoned folks from both the legal aid sector and private practice to hold a discussion about the practice of unbundling, what place it has in our profession, the negative and the positive. Should be a productive discussion.

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