Evaluating Virtual Lawyers

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Nowadays, the first place most people go to get their questions answered is online. There are seemingly infinite resources available, ready to give you advice on everything from treating illness to filing for divorce. For an industry with such a strong stereotype of costly services, it’s easy to see why many potential clients seek free or discounted information from so-called virtual lawyers. Virtual lawyers are springing up all across the web, hoping to save you money by existing in a virtual space.

Why We’re Asking:

Ten years ago, it would be hard to find someone who would trust an online lawyer as much as someone they could meet in person and shake hands with. But we have reached an age where many people trust a face online just as much as they would trust the same person in their living room. We have no problem swiping our credit cards online or doing our taxes, so why not trust our legal problems to the same digital world? To find out more about the world of virtual lawyers, we’re turning to our panel of distinguished legal professionals.

So it’s time to weigh in:

How Should Clients Evaluate Virtual Lawyers?

What are the benefits of a virtual lawyer?

Are their services different?

Are there ever hybrid varieties where you receive counsel both on and offline?

Are virtual lawyers cheaper? Do they represent a better value?

What are some considerations you should make before choosing a virtual lawyer?

How can you be sure they are trustworthy? Are there online certifications for such professionals?

We’re excited to hear back from our legal professionals. Check back later in the week to see what they have to say about virtual lawyers!

Post your answers in the comment field below!

6 COMMENTS

  1. What are the benefits of a virtual lawyer?

    In theory, the benefits of a virtual lawyer would be the cost containment given that the lawyer/firm does not have the overhead of a traditional law firm with a real office. Additionally, a virtual lawyer should be more nimble with regard to client communications since there are no office appointments, hearings, depositions and other typical traditional lawyer functions.

    Are their services different?

    Services from a virtual lawyer are different. Of course there are no in person consultations, physical appearance at hearings, depositions or mediations, but there is also no travel associated with the same matters. Telephone, email, fax and online video are the only ways that the virtual lawyer can perform legal services. This is good and bad. Good in that they can make an effective use of their time, but bad to the extent that the lack of in person communications can impair the quality of an attorney-client relationship. Also, the same limitations of a telephone/video deposition as compared to personally appearing for the deposition are a drawback.

    Are there ever hybrid varieties where you receive counsel both on and offline?

    General consulting, transactional matters or counseling as to cross-border matters can be accomplished with a virtual lawyer, but at the end of the day, you are going to need off line legal services for litigation matters.

    Are virtual lawyers cheaper? Do they represent a better value?

    With the universal caveat that you get what you pay
    for, virtual lawyers may present a short term cost savings for certain limited transactional matters, but there is not substitute for the in personal rapport with one’s attorney. I would not recommend a virtual lawyer for any litigation matters and only in unique circumstances.

  2. There certainly are benefits of using a virtual lawyer. They have lower overhead so they are able to extend to you better hourly rates. They can offer “unbundled” legal services – or a particular type of service without having to handle the entire matter. And the response time is usually faster than traditional calling.

    The biggest problem (and an incredibly HUGE one as is the case with the internet in general) – is knowing who you’re really working with. And this can be a major reason to be cautious, especially when you’re dealing with very sensitive matters.

    I recently learned of three individuals who were using the name of a particular well known law professor. One in particular was taking cases and handling legal matters under his name but was not even a lawyer much less this very prominent lawyer. Many people hired him without ever knowing he wasn’t who he represented himself as being. If one looked up his profile or license, all that would show is the professors background, standing, etc. If you met him, however, you would have immediately seen that his age and ethic background did not match the individual he purported to be.

    “Privilege” is also an issue when it comes to virtual lawyers. This is what enables you to keep the communications between you and your lawyer confidential. If you are dealing with someone who is not a lawyer, the confidential nature of those communications could possibly be lost.

    The exception is if you use a website or platform which has verified the identity of the lawyer. This is the layer you need to insure you are in fact dealing with the person they represent themselves to be. If the platform also verifies that the lawyer has current, ample malpractice insurance, as we do, all the better.

    There are some platforms that offer legal services for a fee; others for a contingency fee. The ideal situation is to find one that does not charge the lawyer to participate because then you may simply end up with lawyers willing to pay for the business. And generally speaking, really great lawyers do not need to pay websites to find them business.

    Hybrids do exist – some better, some worse. One form is advertising based sites. For instance, many sites where lawyers answer questions are founded on the principle that they pay to answer questions and then they get the client to hire them when they want further information or help. Same situation if you purchase a will or trust online that comes with a “complimentary” consultation which is just a fancy way for the lawyer to try to give you enough information to come to the realization that you need to hire that lawyer to do whatever it is they’re telling you.

    Further some lawyers never practice law at all but simply use the web to find clients, refer them to lawyer colleagues and sit back to receive a percentage of whatever the lawyer makes who actually handles your case. So insuring the lawyer you’re connecting with is the lawyer who will in fact handle your matter is another way to make sure you are dealing with the right person. I’ve found that platforms like ours that connect consumers to lawyers in real offices are probably the safest bet because you get the benefit of looking everywhere for a lawyer with as well as the knowledge that the lawyer is vested in his/her business and needs to win cases like yours to pay the rent.

    Not having overhead expenses attracts lawyers who may have not found a job, may have lost a job or may not have the level of financial success that would enable them to invest the money it takes to start their own firm. It’s generally unusual to find really high quality lawyers that choose not to run their own firm or work in a high paying partnership position with great benefits. And if they are not financially sound, this may also translate into them not having enough funds to pay for the expenses of your case (if a contingency fee case) or for simple filing fees or costs if a fee based practitioner.

    So for cases that are limited to document preparation like wills, trusts, etc., a virtual lawyer may be useful and more economical. Online lawyers are probably also excellent for handling matters too small for large law firms.

    End of the day, I’d suggest the following to insure you’re successful with your online legal experience:

    1) Go through a platform that checks their license to find one.

    2) Verify their good standing at the state bar website of the state they’re practicing in (though a platform oftentimes does this for you, it’s always good to insure nothing recent has cropped up)

    3) Ask to see their malpractice insurance certificate (we ask for them to send us this prior to joining our platform)

    4) Use them for matters which are unbundled if fee based (ie to do a specific thing which, chances are, they will do well if that’s all they do) or use the online platform to connect to practitioners who have actual offices.

    5) If your matter is a small thing to get done, then an online resource can be productive. But if there is a lot of money at stake, don’t try to save money by going to someone you’ve never met, don’t know if they have the funds to support your case and may or may not be who they make themselves out to be.

    The web has not come far enough in terms of authentication – ie. where one can go to any lawyer’s website, without some filter like a platform that vets lawyers, and be guaranteed that the lawyer really is who they represent themselves to be. So if you can utilize a platform which verifies their license and validates their malpractice insurance, then and only then can you be pretty sure you are dealing with the real McCoy.

  3. How Should Clients Evaluate Virtual Lawyers? Client should weigh their priorities; consider what a virtual lawyer can offer them, then browse until they find one that they like. They should also consider how “virtual” the office really is (i.e. are there just forms available or is there a chat option, etc.). Client and/or peer reviews may be helpful as well.
    What are the benefits of a virtual lawyer? Convenience. People like virtual anything right now because it’s easy and it’s at the consumer’s fingertips.
    Are their services different? They may be. Some virtual law firms are very well developed and others, well, leave something to be desired.
    Are there ever hybrid varieties where you receive counsel both on and offline? Yes. Many lawyers and/or law firms are setting up virtual interfaces to allow easy communication access for consultations and quick questions, as well as payment options or distribution of materials; yet they still have a brick and mortar office and can interact with you in person if it is necessary or more suitable to the situation.
    Are virtual lawyers cheaper? Do they represent a better value? Virtual lawyers should be cheaper because in theory, they have less overhead. That being said, they are not necessarily a better value. As the old adage goes, “you get what you pay for.” So, if you’re only paying for virtual access and you need something more, you may find yourself in a bind down the road.
    What are some considerations you should make before choosing a virtual lawyer? A potential client should consider what the virtual lawyer offers for services and what his or her representation is like.
    How can you be sure they are trustworthy? Are there online certifications for such professionals? You can’t fully ensure that they are trustworthy. It is easy to get friends and family to post reviews to bolster one’s credibility. There are some online sites, such as avvo.com that have their own rankings system based on a variety of criteria and it seems to be fairly reliable. You can also “google” the attorney’s name to see what has been said about him or her as well and that should also give you insight into their background.

  4. What are the benefits of a virtual lawyer?

    A “virtual” lawyer is one who offers services remotely without meeting with clients face to face. There are many technologies available that allow attorneys to use a combination of telephone and internet communication to provide an array of legal services to clients. There are two primary benefits of using a virtual lawyer. First, the lawyer fees are usually far less than a client would expect to pay going to a brick-and-mortar law firm. Second, the client doesn’t have to physically go to the law firm to meet with the lawyer. Many people are intimidated by the thought of going to a law office. Others find it more convenient to save time and travel cost. Some clients are do-it-yourselfers who want to take care of their legal matter on their own but just need a little bit of help from a licensed attorney. Any of these types of people can be well served by a virtual law office.

    Are their services different?

    There are differences in the way in which the service is provided. However, for many services, the end product should be very similar to what a client would get from a phsyical law firm.

    Services offered by a virtual law firm can be divided into two basic categories: litigation and transactional. In litigation matters, most virtual law offices will give assistance with drafting legal documents but will not appear at depositions or in court on a client’s behalf. This includes services like drafting a complaint or answer, drafting discovery requests, or even drafting briefs or motions. The client may also request court coaching in which the attorney will help get the client ready for the courtroom process. It is up to the client to properly file and serve the paperwork and to appear in court on their own behalf. A client who proceeds this way will be much more prepared than one who tries to do everything alone and will have a higher chance of victory.

    Virtual law offices also offer many transactional matters, like drafting and filing paperwork to create new business entities or drafting estate planning documents, contracts, leases, and other legal documents. Some firms use software platforms that allow the client to complete online questionnaires to collect all of the relevant information. The software automatically creates a first draft of the document, which the attorney “should” put some time into editing and reviewing to make sure it is appropriate to the client’s needs. The attorney will contact the client by email or telephone to discuss the client’s exact needs in order to ensure that the final product is perfectly suited to the client’s situation. In these transactional matters, there is no reason why the final product should not be of the exact same high quality that a client would expect from a traditional law firm. As with traditional law firms, the quality of work is more a function of the lawyer’s knowledge and skill level and and an appropriate amount of time and attention given to the work. There are sure to be lazy lawyers on the internet just as there are lazy lawyers in physical offices, so try to get some information before you hire any lawyer.

    Are there ever hybrid varieties where you receive counsel both on and offline?

    Yes. Many physical law firms have begun to incorporate virtual law office technology for the convenience of their clients. This allows them to have secure communications with clients remotely and provides a way to securely upload and download important, confidential documents. These firms may offer entirely online services in addition to in-person services, or may only offer the online component to in-person clients. For example, I have a physical law office across the street from the county courthouse and also operate a virtual law office that services clients state-wide. In my practice, online clients and in-office clients tend to stay segregated, but I am aware of other law firms in North Carolina that combine the two services regularly.

    Are virtual lawyers cheaper? Do they represent a better value?

    On average, virtual lawyers are cheaper than lawyers who have physical offices. I say on average because there are many lawyers out there who have inexpensive offices and offer services at very low rates. However, they can be hard to find because they usually don’t have much or any advertising budget and depend on referrals to get new clients. Because one of the main draws of a virtual law office is the lower price, almost all virtual law offices will offer services at a reduced fee.

    What are some considerations you should make before choosing a virtual lawyer? How can you be sure they are trustworthy? Are there online certifications for such professionals?

    As with hiring any lawyer, you should try to get as much information as you can about the lawyer before you hire them. Lawyers are humans like everyone else: there are good ones, bad ones, lazy ones, diligent ones, smart ones and less-smart ones. You should definitely look up a virtual lawyer in your state bar’s lawyer directory. You should check to make sure that 1) they are listed, 2) they are in good standing, and 3) that they don’t have a history of ethics violations. All of this information should be listed in the Bar directory.

    There is no such thing as an online certification for a virtual law office or a virutal lawyer. As long as a lawyer is a member in good standing with the state bar and abides by the relevant ethics rules, any attorney can operate a virtual law office.

  5. What are the benefits of a virtual lawyer? Due to improved technology, proximity to the client is no longer for virtual lawyers. This in turn brings cost down. With lower overheads than traditional firms, it is possible to charge less. Lawyers are able to bill fewer hours. It is also common for virtual law firms to be comprised primarily of senior lawyers. This is because they can work without supervision due to their vast experience. It is a huge benefit for clients to work directly with the lawyer on their case, rather than a hierarchy of eyes looking at their case.

  6. Are their services different?
    Virtual lawyers can perform almost all of the same tasks as large in-house firms. Technology is what makes this possible. It is now easy to communicate with clients via Google Apps or Skype. Due to such low overhead costs, virtual law firms are actually growing.
    There are some cases that would be better served in an in-house firm, however. Large cases like cross-border transactions or huge company lawsuits would be better served in-person. But these cases are the minority.
    Are virtual lawyers cheaper? Do they represent a better value?
    Yes, virtual lawyers are cheaper, significantly so. Without the cost of rent, and a payroll of hundreds of lawyers, the cost goes down. In fact, billing is sometimes cut in half.

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