Aug 23, 2010
The Virtual Law Office Debate…Really?
Carolyn Elefant at MyShingle.com has taken Lee Rosen of Divorce Discourse to task in her new post ‘The Virtual Law Office Debate’. Why? Because he has written a provocative post called ‘What the Virtual Law Office Advocates Are Not Telling You. Whenever change is inevitable, before it becomes mainstream, it is framed as a debate. Lawyer Marketing, Twitter’s value, Blogging as a means of attracting clients, social media in the work place, the internet as a game-changer. The list is endless. And so when I see challenges or debates or posts like Lee’s I know the times they are a’changin’ and wholesale mainstreaming of a concept is just around the corner.
There are clearly two sides to the issue. Those who are embracing it and running ahead of the pack are recognizing that how we deliver services to clients has to change because of economics. Technology is a vehicle for this change.
Lee makes a few observations on the topic of virtual law offices and by extension, unbundled legal services. First, he doesn’t see the demand by clients for a virtual platform and unbundled legal services…yet. Second, he believes a percentage of those lawyers buying into the concept of virtual law offices do not get (or are not being told) they still have to market to the consumer and work hard to build a client base. Third, he is comparing unbundled legal services via a virtual law office platform to the offerings of LegalZoom and others. As such, he presumes the average lawyer will be outclassed and outspent in trying to attract this segment of market.
I’m going to challenge these thoughts point by point.
First, if there isn’t a sweeping demand now, there will be. Why? Economics and the courts. The courts are looking to make changes allowing lawyers to represent clients in an unbundled way when traditionally they required full representation and accountability. It is much better for the courts to allow potential pro se litigants to have this option available to them. They understand litigants are facing economic hardships, don’t necessarily qualify for Legal Aid (which is losing resources due to shrinking IOLTA accounts) and if this dramatically increasing segment of the population goes completely pro se the courts will simply be overwhelmed. In Connecticut, I had the good fortune to discuss this with one of our chief justices and they are exploring unbundled services with, shall we say, ‘great enthusiasm.’ Connecticut isn’t alone. Education by the lawyer and encouragement by the courts will create the demand because it addresses a pain point for potential clients – I don’t want to do this completely alone but I can’t afford to pay for A-Z representation.
Second, Lee believes lawyers who are creating virtual law offices think they are going to get clients without marketing. I find this ludicrous. As stated, whether a traditional law office or a virtual one, a lawyer must get clients through marketing, referrals, etc. I know two of the credible vendors of the virtual law office platform, Stephanie Kimbro and Richard Granat. They are both faculty at Solo Practice University. NEVER have they EVER suggested the platform does not require good old fashioned marketing strategies. If there is a lawyer walking around in a daze because s/he created a virtual law office and thought they didn’t have to market, that’s the lawyer’s issue.
Third, the lawyer who chooses the virtual law office platform, in my opinion, is not someone who sees Legal Zoom as their competitor. I believe this assumption by Lee was not accurate. The lawyer who chooses a virtual law office platform (and generally unbundled legal services) is someone who is looking to address an ever-growing segment of the population – the potential client who would have hired a traditional lawyer and paid the full fare, but economic times have prevented them from making this choice. These people are not necessarily the Legal Zoom market. They don’t want to be a DiY’er but they think there are no other options because they haven’t been educated there is another way to work with a lawyer. They want a safety net, someone to address what they are uncomfortable doing during litigation or they want someone to review their work. They still want to be referred to a living, breathing counselor at law whom they can still have a relationship with. They have the funds for as-needed representation which can be done via the virtual law office platform because it is cost-effective for the client and the lawyer.
Moreover, the virtual law office platform does not necessarily equate to discounted services or low-end services or even unbundled services. It is a suite of technologies. How the lawyer utilizes these technologies is up to her.
But, clients are demanding they be serviced differently and they are voting with their wallets.
The key is matching up the right client with the right lawyer.
Please read the posts I referenced and the very thoughtful comments/responses from Richard Granat, Stephanie Kimbro and Donna Seyle.