The Virtual Law Office

8.29.13

Law is the next big thing to go wireless, as a new trend of virtual law offices moves lawyers out of traditional offices and enables them to practice at home or in satellite offices. As technology continues to evolve at an extremely fast pace, the State Bar of Arizona, in addition to many other state bars across the country, will be forced to take a deeper look at how these new practices will be managed and regulated.

Essentially, the idea behind virtual law offices is to make lawyers more accessible to clients, while also removing some of the geographical boundaries that may limit a lawyer’s scope of practice. For example, a lawyer licensed in one state may set up a home office and provide legal services, via the Internet and cloud computing, to clients all over the world. However, some states are not entirely ready to allow this type of practice to occur. A Podcast by the Jennings Strouss managing attorney, J. Scott Rhodes, addresses the issues presented by virtual law offices by stating that if a lawyer, not licensed in Arizona, spends more than six months a year in Arizona, and provides services for a client in a different state, he or she may be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law in Arizona. Inevitably, many discussions have ensued regarding this traditional regulatory stance and how, or if, it should be reconsidered to keep pace with the evolution of technologically savvy business practices.

Today’s culture and society is becoming increasingly mobile. Individuals do not necessarily live, or conduct all of their business and personal matters, in one state. The idea of a virtual law office seems beneficial to both lawyers and clients should either party move to a different state, because they would be able to maintain their already established attorney-client relationship. Additionally, virtual law offices provide an opportunity for solo and small firms to expand their client base and generate more business despite geographic boundaries. The client-driven market for online legal services is forcing lawyers and firms to become more creative and accessible; however, the lag in pliability of some current regulations can make adoption and expansion of virtual law offices difficult.

Maintaining compliance with current regulations regarding technology use in a law practice can be a tall order. An example of this is a rule that has been adopted by the American Bar Association permitting a lawyer to provide “temporary” legal services, to be handled by lawyers outside of their jurisdiction. The issue is the gray area that exists surrounding the word “temporary.” The difference between temporary and permanent can be the difference between authorized and unauthorized practice of law. Should a lawyer be found to have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, he or she could be disqualified from becoming a member of the state bar. While there are many benefits of a virtual law office, the risks involved are a deterrent to some lawyers considering engaging in this type of practice.

From a consumer standpoint, the increasing availability of law services via the internet provides alternative, more convenient, and lower cost ways to have their legal needs met. There are, however, two major issues that hinder this movement to virtual law offices privacy and security. Similar to the accommodations made by banks to secure client information when banking transitioned online, lawyers must establish tight security measures to ensure their clients’ information remains confidential and safe. All states now permit the use of email communication with clients, but any form of unencrypted email runs the risk of access by a third party. Several have issued ethics opinions related to technology use and requirements for protecting client information. The State Bar of Arizona has, in fact, addressed this issue in an ethics opinion, which states that an attorney using electronic files has the responsibility to take competent and reasonable steps to assure that the client’s information is not disclosed to third parties. Nationwide, regulators of the legal profession have not yet uniformly determined a specific sets of standards of acceptable security precautions for the use of technology in law practices.

The advancement of virtual law offices is hindered by current regulations and differing ethics opinions. To its credit, the law of regulating lawyers is trying to keep up with all the new technologies, but isn’t there yet. In the meantime, it appears that the technology and the creativity of lawyers will be ahead of regulation on this issue. If regulation and enforcement of these rules become more standardized, the progression of virtual law practices will take off, potentially providing increased client access to justice, and business growth opportunities for lawyers.