Representation at a Distance: The Rise and Benefits of Virtual Law
This year has been hard to say the least. We’re in and out of quarantine, going back to work and staying home, sending our kids back to school and homeschooling all at once. Depending on where you are, restrictions could be tight, loose, or somewhere in between. But, while it seems that the world has come to a screeching halt, some parts of it can’t.
Grocery store employees, healthcare workers, politicians, emergency responders and millions of other citizens are working tirelessly in our country’s towns and cities. Some industries can’t take days off. The law included.
We have a vision of law offices created by movies, TV, and commercials. A person who was wronged or is seeking representation walks into the office, is greeted by their lawyer, is comforted, and walks through the steps they need to take to win their case. A relationship with a lawyer is a personal one. Clients need to feel taken care of.
Cases can be gruelling, heartbreaking, and intimate. You may have conversations with your lawyer that you wouldn’t have with anyone else. This is what has made our new normal so difficult for lawyers and clients alike. But, as some legal experts have pointed out, these times have given the legal world the chance to look in the mirror.
Personal meetings may be more difficult or impossible, but what advantages do virtual meetings and conferences have? What can we gain, and what can we learn from our new reality? How can we come out of this pandemic stronger, and having grown our industry?
Let’s talk about it.
How Virtual Law Can Improve Legal Representation
Virtual Law: The Origins
To be clear from the top, the term “virtual law” doesn’t mean that legal representation is lesser than or worse than a traditional legal process. It isn’t “basically” or “virtually” law, it’s law at a distance. While it may come as a surprise, virtual law and online legal practices are nothing new.
Traveling for legal representation was hard, and often too much of an inconvenience for many people. This kept clients from being able to access the premier representation, and put a ceiling on potential revenues for law firms around the country.
Beginning in the early 1970s, virtual legal counsel and advice was offered by firms over the phone for the first time. By the end of that decade, over 90% of firms in North America offered some kind of virtual legal representation. Clearly, a need was being met.
By the time the internet became widely available in the 1990s, the concept of virtual legal representation was already top of mind. With this new digital avenue, though, the industry took off. Virtual firms were popping up around the world, and in 2002, the “first pure virtual law firm relying on cloud-based apps [was] formed in the US.”
As technology improved and overhead costs increased, the benefits of going virtual (at least for law firms), continued to reveal themselves.
Though the growth seemed staggering, virtual law still wasn’t the preferred method of legal representation for clients. In 2013, only 5% of law firms in the US described themselves as purely virtual.
Given the option of in-person visits, the majority of clients still prefer to come into the office if possible. Reasons for this include the factors mentioned earlier, but also include the complexity of their potential case. Some things are harder to convey virtually than in person.
Now, given our new and unfortunate reality, lawyers and clients alike don’t have much of a choice. Virtual law seems to be the way forward, at least for now.
Given that, what are the benefits of virtual law for individual cases and, more broadly, for the legal profession at large?
Virtual Law: The Benefits
The potential benefits of virtual law will be different depending on who you are, and what area of law you’re involved with. But, we think that breaking down the potential benefits a little bit will make this concept a bit easier to swallow.
Here are some benefits of virtual law for lawyers, clients, and the industry at large.
- Lower Overhead
If you own your practice, you know what we’re talking about. Rent and bills are enough to pay, let alone for other staff members and regular cleanings of your office. Without having to go fully virtual, most law firms can lower their monthly spend on overhead costs like these by simply taking a few virtual calls per week.
According to Google Workplace Analytics, business owners save $11,000 per year per every half-time virtual employee. The math is a little different for clients, but you get the picture.
2. Broader Client Base
Somewhat unfortunately, law firms don’t have the benefit of working with clients around the country. You may be licensed to practice law in more than one state, but chances are your firm works fairly locally.
For many potential clients, it doesn’t really matter what your reputation is, or what you can do for them. If your firm is inaccessible, or they just can’t get there, they won’t choose you to represent them. Taking client calls virtually allows firms to broaden their client base and, effectively, dramatically increase revenue.
3. Work from Anywhere
It can be a pain to come into the office everyday. If you have the chance to work from home, why not take it?
Like with clients, working from home saves on overhead and commuting costs, including that coffee you could’ve made at home. This might be a bit of a cop out benefit, but who doesn’t love working in their pyjamas from time to time?
- Save Time
Clearly, not having to drive to an appointment at a law firm saves time. Simply booting up your computer or punching a phone number into your cell is much, much faster. While that speed is very convenient, it might also help your case.
Putting off legal proceedings due to inconvenience or the inability to get to a law firm for a meeting can damage your credibility, and draw out what could’ve been a faster process.
2. Save Money
This is related to the first point, but is an important point to make. The cost to drive to a lawyers office and spend the day away from work is just another added expense that you just don’t need to pay. Virtual law has removed the shadow fees and costs of simply asking for the best possible legal representation.
3. Access Higher Quality Representation
Aside from simply being able to get a meeting with a lawyer, clients can now choose the best possible representation, rather than what’s easiest to get to.
For a lot of people, legal representation is about convenience. As virtual services become more widely adopted, clients don’t have to settle for mediocre representation.
For the Industry
Of course COVID-19 has utterly shifted the way in which legal proceedings are done around the country. We’ve seen court cases occurring over Zoom for everything from petty crimes to murder. But, these logistical changes are temporary. Whenever we come out of this pandemic, these kinds of changes will go back to normal. Courtrooms will open up again, the Zoom calls will reduce, and people will flood back into the legal system as they did before.
However, isolation and distancing has permanently changed at least one aspect of the legal industry. It has democratized legal representation.
Through virtual conferencing and the internet, law firms are now able to accept clients from anywhere. This accessibility breaks down the barriers of class, race, culture, and disability to allow all potential legal clients the chance to be represented properly.
Ultimately, the democratization of legal representation will help to grow the legal world beyond these prior confinements, forcing changes and expansion in ways that we never thought were possible.
Virtual Law: The Transition
This change has been hard for all firms in all areas of the legal system. But, some are more affected than others. According to McKinsey:
“Although some practice areas, such as labor and employment, will likely see consistent demand shifts across sectors, transactional practices, in particular, are likely to be focused on very different situations in more distressed sectors such as travel, transportation, and leisure than in areas such as healthcare.”
Though this doesn’t apply to every firm, it does make clear that firms focused in different areas of the law will be affected differently. McKinsey goes on to note that “every firm should develop a perspective on the demand outlook for the sectors, client types, and practices to which they have greatest exposure.”
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to ramp up a firm’s virtual services will depend on their own client research and sector. Some firms won’t feel the need to change, while others may be prompted to take an entirely remote approach.
But whether these firms go remote or not, the changes to our industry will be felt. No industry is free from the evolution that this pandemic has brought, the law included.
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