Would A Virtual Law Office Work For You?

Lessons From The Lawyer-Coach

Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC , a law practice management coaching and training firm, and author of the Raising the Bar blog. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming the first Texas lawyer credentialed by the International Coach Federation (ICF). She has served as Vice-Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas and as leader of the Houston chapter of ICF. You can follow her at www.Twitter.com/LawyerCoach or at www.Facebook.com/LawyerCoach. You can also e-mail her at debra@lawyer-coach.com

Would A Virtual Law Office Work For You?

By Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC

Rania Combs is a wills, trusts and estates lawyer, licensed in Texas since 1994. When her spouse got transferred to North Carolina, she examined her options for practicing law there. Opening a virtual law office serving Texans while residing in North Carolina seemed like the solution to a challenging circumstance. She launched her virtual practice in January 2010.

Many lawyers may wonder whether a virtual law office would solve their problems, too. Here are some examples of why they might be considering it:

  • Newly licensed attorneys may want to avoid the overhead and long-term commitment of a traditional brick and mortar office.
  • Experienced lawyers may want to expand the geographic reach of their existing practice to garner more clients.
  • Many lawyers have a thriving practice in a smaller town, but have difficulty finding locally the high caliber legal talent they need to help handle the work flow.
  • Family obligations or other circumstances make it difficult for some attorneys to keep traditional office hours.
  • For some attorneys, the international scope of their work demands technological innovation to serve client needs.
  • Some attorneys just long to escape the snow in the winter or the heat in the summer without interrupting their law  practice.
  • Some attorneys may be barred in one state yet circumstances bring them to another and they wish to keep their practices ongoing where they are barred.

To help answer some of your questions about what it’s really like to open a virtual law practice, I interviewed Rania Combs. You can view Combs’ website at www.TexasWillsAndTrustsLaw.com. The interview follows:

DB: What are some of the biggest misconceptions lawyers and clients seem to have about a virtual law office?

RC: The biggest misconception lawyers and clients have is that the attorney client relationship will be impersonal because there is no face-to-face contact between the attorney and client. I have not found this to be the case, and in fact, my clients usually comment on how personal the relationship feels. Although my firm is completely web based, my clients and I are in constant communication via discussions on their client account and on the phone. The flat fee I quote my clients includes all communications between us so they never hesitate contacting me with a quick question or concern, which helps keep thelines of communication open. Also, my clients get an alert every time their file is updated, so
they are kept apprised of my progress on their case.

DB: How does a typical new client relationship begin?

RC: Occasionally, a new client will call or email me first, but typically, he or she will initiate the relationship by registering as a new client on my virtual law office and starting a new case. The first thing I do when they register is call them to introduce myself and to answer any questions they may have about the process. I then attach a detailed questionnaire to their file for them to complete before we talk again.

DB: How much time do you spend talking on the phone with your clients?

RC: The time I spend on the phone varies greatly depending on my clients’ unique circumstances. Some clients’ needs are straightforward and they have few questions, whileother clients’ estates are more complex and they have many questions. I always have atleast three conversations with them: an introductory phone call after they register, a phone call to discuss their goals and objectives and how to accomplish what they want to do, and a call after drafts have been prepared to answer any questions they may have and to ensure that the documents I have prepared reflects their wishes.

DB: How are your clients responding to working with you virtually?

RC: They really seem to enjoy working with me online. Many of my clients are very busy with family and work commitments and appreciate being able to communicate with me online or on their schedule, rather than only during normal business hours.

DB: Do your clients tend to have certain demographics in common, like age, socio-economic class, etc.?

RC: Surprisingly, no. When I first launched the virtual law office a year ago, I expected that the vast majority of my clients would be people in the 25-45 age group, with simple estate planning needs. But that hasn’t been the case. About half my clients are over the age of 45. One client was in his 80s! Some of them do have small estates, but others have significant assets, and other complexities involving blended families or special needs children.

DB: What patterns do you see in the way clients find you?

RC: Last year, most of my clients found my website when researching issues related to Texas wills, trusts and estates. As my client base has grown, I’ve started getting some referred and repeat clients, which has been very rewarding.

DB: Do you think a virtual office is particularly suited to an estate planning practice? From your experience, what other practice areas do you think would work well?

RC: I think web-based law offices are well suited for practices that are transactional in nature, such as estate planning, although brick and mortar firms in any practice area could integrate a virtual component to communicate and exchange documents with their clients in a secure environment.

DB: What would you do differently in the start-up process (or otherwise), knowing what you know now?

RC: Quite honestly, I don’t think I’d change a thing. Before I launched my firm, I spoke to as many attorneys, marketing professionals, and consultants who were willing to talk to me about what it would take to build a web-based law practice. I still do, because there is always something I can be doing better and I learn something from everyone I talk to. I especially appreciate those who are bluntly honest and back that honesty with practical advice that actually makes a huge difference. I also spend a lot of time talking with my clients about the factors that led them to my firm, what they liked most about the process, and things that surprised them. Each time I do that, I get more information about things I can do to improve my client’s experience. Much of starting a business is trial and error, and I’ve learned things even through my mistakes. I wouldn’t change that.

DB: What advice do you have for lawyers who are thinking about introducing a virtual element into their practice?

RC: You’re going to have to find a way to drive clients to your website. Just like building a traditional brick and mortar firm, building a web-based law firm takes time, patience and hard work. It won’t happen overnight.

DB: What challenges do you face with a virtual office, and how have you overcome them?

RC: People who are comfortable working with an attorney online are typically those who will use the internet to research their problem or find an attorney. So I haven’t had much return on investment on traditional forms of advertising, such as magazine ads. What has worked for me is promoting my firm and blog through social media, writing articles for my blog about issues potential clients are researching, and accepting invitations to write for other
websites.

I extend my appreciation to Rania Combs for “paying forward” the help she got, by sharing her experience with our readers.

Have you considered a virtual office?  What has held you back?

If you have questions for Rania, ask in the comments or you can connect with her:

Twitter: @raniacombs

email: rania@texaswillsandtrustslaw.com

website: Texas Wills & Trusts Law

Linkedin

phone: 832-545-3955

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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10 comments on “Would A Virtual Law Office Work For You?

  • Thanks so much for this, Debra & Rania! I just launched my Online Law Office and have been looking for tips. I like the idea of making an introductory call after the client registers. And I have been debating whether I should move my blog to my firm website, it seems like Rania has had a lot of success by blogging on her firm website. I may have to go ahead and move that blog.

    Thanks, again, this was great!

  • Rachel-
    I think it makes a lot of sense to have your blog on your website. It makes it very easy for your client to find out more about your firm and take that next step of contacting you. In addition, your website can be built mostly in WordPress or other technology, making it easier for you to make changes yourself, instead of having to call your webmaster for everything.

  • Rania’s virtual law office is a great example of the flexibility that this form of law practice allows for the attorney. She is able to live in one state while delivering legal services to clients in another.

    Similar to Rania’s practice, with my own virtual law office, I also was surprised by the type of clients that I have registering online. I initially thought they would be younger individuals in the age range of 20-30 and I targeted my advertising that way at first. However, most of my online clients are in the age range of 35-50 and I also have some older retired clients in their 60s and 70s. That was not what I expected, but if you think about all of the grandparents going on Facebook these days to keep in touch with the family, it does make sense that if they can use Facebook and email, they would be comfortable communicating with an attorney through a secure client portal.

    As our client base gets younger, I think we will see even more of a demand for online legal services. I know Rachel Rodgers with her online practice focused on younger entrepreneurs is seeing this trend now.

    Kudos to the trailblazers for sharing their experiences with the rest of us!

  • Thanks for sharing your experience, too, Stephanie. The experiences you two have shared just point to how important it is to test our assumptions and track our results!

  • Speaking from my own virtual law office experience which began with Steph Kimbro’s VLOTech, I think an important consideration is that the VLO portal gives me the ability to reach across the state for my client base as opposed to being restrained to a local geographic area. Its the difference between reaching 8 wineries versus 150. My winery client base is located in every county of Pennsylvania’s 62 counties. Having a virtual law office allows me to reach them. While my hospitality clients have typically been closer geographically, I find that if you do good work, word of mouth gets around rapidly across the state. I let my work speak for me. That is more important to me than anything I can say on a website blog.

    I do however think it makes good sense to have your blog Rachel on your website as well. I find it to be very efficient and the reader doesn’t have to change sites to get more detail on who you are and what you do.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience, Judy. It sounds like you use a virtual office to complement your brick & mortar office. Is that correct? Or are you all virtual?

    • I’m brick and mortal to the extent I “carpet commute”. I run a full service firm providing transactional, administrative and regulatory legal services.

  • Hello everybody. Thank you for this article. I too am thinking about doing this sort of an virtual office for estate planning. I am admitted in both SC and NY. physically based in SC, and am thinking abiout trying to get vitual estate planning clients throughout SC and NY.

    There are two issues that I am concerned with though. One, I think that part of your job as an estate planning attorney is to assess the capacity of your clients and try to determine whether what they want you to do for them is really their own free will. How do you go about assessing this in a virtual practice setting? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you turned down an estate planning representation because it just didn’t seem right? Do you verify identities?

    What do you do to ensure that the documents are properly executed? I would assume you provide a letter of instruction to your clients on how to properly execute the documents. Do you follow up afterwards in anyway to ensure that everything is done correctly? What about if you are funding a trust with a house? Do you take charge of the recording or leave that to your clients as well?

    Would appreciate any thoughts you might have.

    • Hi Chris.

      You’ve asked some very good questions, including some I asked myself.

      With respect to competence, I had this conversation not too long ago with Stephanie Kimbro, who had discussed this issue with Will Hornsby and Rich Granat. Their opinion is as follows:

      “As attorneys, determining the competency of an individual is not our job. We didn’t go to medical school and I are not qualified to make that call. We can only use the best of our abilities to ensure that the client understands what he or she is signing and what the consequences of signing it will be. This is traditionally determined by having a conversation with the client in person. Even then you might not recognize an illness such as dementia, which can come and go, but as an attorney, we cannot be expected to go to greater measures than determining that they understand what they are signing.

      So, in the virtual world there are several ways to determine capacity. First, clients have to fill out a client intake form online. This contains all of the questions I would ask if I were meeting them in person. Usually if there is a problem, a red flag will first show up in the response or lack thereof. I also have the ability to schedule phone calls and web conferences with clients. I have sometimes extensive text conversations with clients back and forth about provisions in a document or what they are trying to accomplish. Also, before the documents can be enforceable, they must be notarized in front of two witnesses. The notary acknowledgment is written to have the notary check the driver’s license of the person signing the document and the witnesses attest to the capacity of the signer.

      With a combination of those methods, I feel comfortable that I am not drafting documents for someone holding undue influence over the client. I would also think that if a person were going to commit fraud or undue influence online, they would pay less and go to a document preparation service rather than come to my virtual law office.”

      Nevertheless, when people call asking me to draft a will for an elderly client who they admit has dementia, the beginning stages or Alzheimer’s or who supposedly wants to disinherit a child, for example, I decline representation and refer them to an attorney with a physical law office who can take a good look at the situation and make sure the clients rights are protected.

      With respect to the proper execution of the documents, I limit my representation to drafting the documents and also provide very detailed instructions on how to execute the documents in compliance with the statutes.

  • Great interview with Ms. Combs. Based on my limited research to this point, it seems like most people are using an SaaS company to populate the back end of their VLOs. I’ve read Ms. Kimbro’s book and am using her various checklists to go about setting up my own VLO, but I’ve got questions about the client portal. Any guidance or input would be much appreciated.

    First, how many competing companies are out there at this point for providing SaaS to law firms? Are there several companies competing for VLO business or just one or two strong ones?

    Second, I’m curious what level of customization a lawyer has over the client interface. How individualized to the specific law firm is the client interface?

    Lastly, if it’s alright, I’d like the option to quote from this article and the comments on the blog which I’m writing to catalog my investigation into launching my own VLO. I’m following Ms. Kimbro’s checklists from her book and writing posts along the way. The more sources you have, the better, right?

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