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There is a lot of debate about what exactly a "virtual" law practice is: Is it someone who doesn't have a full-time office and primarily uses email? Or is it something more: online-only, using secure document portals for clients, perhaps using more than just e-mail (video chat, maybe)?
For now, we're going to go with the online-only lawyer. Think: someone who never meets clients in person and who could run his firm just as easily from North Dakota as he could from a motel in Amarillo, Texas. What are the pros and cons of such an unusual, "virtual" arrangement?
Pros: Flexibility, Low Overhead
One of the most well-known virtual lawyers is Rachel Rodgers, who not only practices law fully online, but also runs a consultancy on how to do what she did: Excel online with minimal overhead. In an interview with Fast Company last year, she described starting a firm three years ago with her leftover law school laptop and $300, most of which went to her malpractice insurance.
Now? She has a thriving practice that has allowed her expand her team and to help clients worldwide. Though she is licensed in New York and New Jersey, she lives in South Dakota. And she has plenty of time for her 1-year-old daughter, who plays in her play pen next to Rodgers while she works.
Her setup is the perfect example of the allure of the online practice: ultra-flexible, a wider (at least geographically speaking) client base, and being your own boss.
Cons: Non-Lawyer Competition, Limited Practice Areas
It sounds great, right? Then why aren't these practices more popular? (By some measures, they're even declining by a small amount.)
Carolyn Elefant at MyShingle makes a really great point: You're competing with non-lawyer online services, like LegalZoom or RocketLawyer. Some clients are wise enough to see the benefits of a "real" lawyer; the question is: How many are wise enough to see those benefits yet willing to go with someone on a webcam? And if they can save a few hundred dollars by going with a legal website over a virtual lawyer, why would they pick the latter?
Another big con: limited practice areas. Rodgers' firm succeeded because she targeted young entrepreneurial types, the exact audience that is most likely to not be scared away by technology.
What other practice areas are amenable to online-only? Think paperwork: small business startups, estate planning (except one would imagine that this more "senior" clientele would be less comfortable with a fully online lawyer), or limited-scope/unbundled services like a one-off contract drafting gig. You probably won't be doing criminal defense or any sort of litigation.
To sum it all up: You're going to face a lot of competition from legal paperwork mills, and you'll be limited to paper-heavy practice areas and a tech-savvy client base. But if you value independence and working remotely, it's possible you can make a "virtual" law practice work for you.
Do you run an online-only practice? We want to hear from you. Tweet us @FindLawLP.