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Do V-Lawyers and E-Lawyers Fully Substitute for A Lawyer?

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I came across this interesting article in the Washington City Paper  criticizing the D.C. Jail’s replacement  for face-to-face visits with video conferencing.  What’s the problem, you might wonder. After all, isn’t visitation a hardship for many families?  At least video allows for continued contact without the muss and fuss of in person contact.

Not entirely. Because most D.C. prisoners eventually serve out their terms in far away jails, allowing in person visitation while they’re close to home “strains family relationships…that have been shown to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.”  There’s a personal component missing as well; as the mom of one young inmates poignantly stated, “Being in the same room “is something you can’t replace.”  Even the D.C. Bar has joined other groups to push for the restoration of in person visitation.

The article comes at a time where video services for lawyers and clients like Law Zam and (recently covered by Bob Ambrogi are launching left and right – often billed as the same thing as having a lawyer in the same room. Except they’re not, really.  Just as video cameras put a distance between inmates and their families, so too, video and email and other online modes of communication put distance between lawyers and clients.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that lawyers should ignore video and Skype.  Visiting clients, particularly those in far off locations, can be time consuming and expensive for lawyers, while clients — particularly those with small children or housebound with illness – may find video and email far more convenient than multiple in person visits. Plus, open communication is at the heart of the attorney-client relationship so the more channels we can open to facilitate communication, the better.

It’s possible that in time, society may grow so accustomed to virtual modes of communication that personal interaction will seem quaint and inefficient; that shaking a client’s sweaty hand or viewing tears up close may seem messy and overly intimate.  But I don’t think so, not just yet. My teen daughters spend large amounts of time online, video chatting and texting with friends — yet they still relish seeing them in school or getting together on the weekends and I’m not sure that will ever change. Meanwhile, because I have a national practice, most of my clients live several hours away. But I never pass up meeting with them when they’re in town, or to visit with them when the opportunity presents itself.

Texting and video conferencing and email have made it easier for lawyers to communicate with clients – and for that reason, we should embrace these new technologies. At the same time, we ought not assume that a v-lawyer or e-lawyer completely substitutes for a lawyer who can shake a client’s hand or look clients in the eye without any barrier in between.

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