starting a hybrid law firm

How to Start a Law Firm: Hybrid Practice Is Possible

This article is a summary of the #ABATECHSHOW 2023 Presentation by Nicole Black and John Burnett entitled Creating a Successful & Ethical Remote Hybrid Firm of the Future, based on notes by Riz Ali, edited and optimized by ChatGPT and review by Carolyn Elefant

Post-pandemic Trends Favor Hybrid Law Firms 

As presenters Nicole Black and John Burnett described, the legal industry has seen a significant increase post-pandemic  in the use of virtual practice models, with 76% of law firms using iCloud and effectively using video conferencing tools like Zoom for client meetings and remote staff. More law firms are accepting online payments, offer payment plans, and are considering legal fee loans. Cloud computing and secure client portals are now acceptable in the legal industry.

Tips for Implementing a Hybrid Practice

As lawyers transition to virtual practice, Black and Burnett emphasized that is crucial to proceed responsibly and professionally. Here are some tips they shared to implement a hybrid practice consistent with ethical and professional obligations:

  • Ensure technology competence and implement cybersecurity measures to protect client confidentiality.
  • Dress appropriately and maintain a professional background during virtual court appearances.
  • Use secure video conferencing tools and follow best practices such as requiring a password for admittance of guests and locking the call once it starts.
  • Disable the listening capability of smart speakers, virtual assistants, and other listening-enabled devices when communicating about client matters – a practice recommended by ABA Ethics guidelines.
  • Practice ethically when working remotely in a state where you’re not licensed to avoid unauthorized practice of law and misleading the public.
  • Follow best practices for laptops to protect confidential client information.
  • Ensure business resiliency and flexibility with video conferencing technology to support better attendance and reduce costs.
  • Allow clients to join via browser rather than an app for greater convenience.

Ethical Obligations for Lawyers For a Hybrid Law Firm

Black and Burnett also focused on legal ethics.  Specifically, lawyers have ethical obligations that apply with equal force in virtual practice. Here are some of the applicable ethical obligations:

  • Technology competence: Lawyers have an ethical obligation to understand technology, including cybersecurity, and take reasonable steps to implement cybersecurity measures.  For example, Michigan Bar Ethics Opinion RI-381 states that lawyers have a duty to understand technology and adopt cybersecurity measures to protect client confidentiality.
  • Unauthorized practice of law: Lawyers must consider whether they’re working remotely in a state where they’re not licensed and take appropriate measures to limit their practice to federal law or obtain a license in the new state.
  • Confidentiality: Lawyers must use secure and encrypted communication channels when handling confidential client information and follow best practices such as using face detection software to ensure end-to-end encryption.

Granted the list of ethics and tech requirements for a hybrid office may seem daunting. But protecting clients comes with the territory of serving them and hybrid offices aren’t subject to any more regulation than trust accounting or lawyer advertising that firms live with every day. And hybrid offices don’t involve nearly as hassle as negotiating leases or buying a building, coming up with security deposits and planning space needs five years out — as lawyers were required to do when full-time space was de rigeur. Welcome to the present!