The Virtual Legal Market

Photo by: Melanie Clayton

In today’s market, a sizable portion of the population neither has access to nor cannot afford full legal representation.  Limited scope representation, or unbundled legal services, can be an attractive option to both an attorney and a client.  Unbundled legal services are more limited in scope, and are presented to the client as a “menu” from which the client can choose.  In other words, the client decides how much he or she will do themselves and how much the attorney will be involved.  Types of unbundled services can include, among other things, document drafting and review, legal advice, dispute resolution, and case evaluation.  This limited representation is beneficial in that the client can tailor his or her attorney-client relationship to fit specific needs.  This practice also creates a more accessible justice system.

However, a discussion about unbundled legal services is incomplete without mentioning another emerging area of the legal practice: virtual representation.  With the current proliferation of technology and technological services, it is no surprise the legal sector has not been left untouched.  Many attorneys and firms that offer unbundled legal services offer such services on and over the Internet.  Stephanie Kimbro, attorney and Director of the North Carolina branch of Burton Law, LLC., is an expert in combining unbundled legal services with virtual legal services. Prior to working for Burton Law, Kimbro operated a virtual law office for six years that offered unbundled estate planning and small business legal services to North Carolinians.  Her inspiration for starting a virtual law office came from time spent as an associate in a small law firm, where she saw potential client needs were not met by the traditional representation model.  “People would come in and request legal services, but the firm could not provide them because it was not cost-effective,” Kimbro said.  “I knew that I could help people with things like estate planning or landlord-tenant issues, but potential clients didn’t have the money to access full representation,” commented Kimbro.  “It was frustrating.”

While unbundled legal services can be provided either in person or over the Internet, Kimbro chose to create a virtual law practice where unbundled legal services could be selected with the click of a button.  While unbundling works well for transactional work—particularly estate planning—Kimbro acknowledged that unbundling is not always appropriate.   “First, attorneys need to ask whether the particular service is one that should be unbundled.  If it’s too complex or if court appearances will be necessary throughout, it’s usually better to start and end with full representation.”  Kimbro concluded, “Overall, the determination should be made by looking at what is in the best interest of the client.”

Others have been influenced by Kimbro’s vision.  Robert Valdillez and Mike McMullan graduated from Campbell University School of Law in 2010.  They were both third-year students taking a class on starting a law firm when Kimbro visited as a guest speaker.  “I was wondering what the next step would be,” McMullan noted.  “Between Kimbro’s advice and seeing a need to provide services online, starting a virtual law practice seemed like the solution.”  Valdillez felt similarly, and he soon founded Firebrand Legal Services in Raleigh, North Carolina.  McMullan soon joined as the firm’s second attorney.  The firm focuses on trademark, copyright, business formation, and contract creation, but is open to helping small businesses and independent creators legal hurdles.  On the surface, Firebrand seems similar to other small law practices – with one exception.  Firebrand is almost entirely virtual.

Virtual law practices have benefits: scheduling flexibility, ease and speed of communication, and the ability to cater to clients who feel more comfortable in front of a computer than an attorney.  However, there are potential ethical concerns with this new and growing niche.  Unauthorized practice in other jurisdictions can be an issue, especially in light of Rule 5.5 of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, which proscribes the practice of law in jurisdictions in which an attorney is not admitted to practice.  This could be problematic as websites are not bound to specific jurisdictions, and anyone can view any website from just about anywhere.  However, attorneys can put safeguards in place to ensure they comply with Rule 5.5.  Such safeguards include ensuring the website is precise as to where the attorney is licensed to practice, and communicating exactly what services the attorney is providing.  These safeguards will also ensure compliance with Rule 7.1, which requires a lawyer not to mislead the public about the lawyer’s services.  Both websites used by Kimbro and Firebrand have an automatic notification which alerts them to any potential jurisdictional problems arising from a client’s location.

Another ethical question directed toward virtual law practices is whether clients can be accurately and fairly represented by their attorneys as virtual interaction is, by nature, limited.  But Kimbro and the attorneys at Firebrand respectfully disagree.  Kimbro sees technology as a helpful aid in providing competent representation.  She uses web conferencing and, on occasion, a telepresence tool known as Skype to connect with clients.  “Those tools allow you to look at a client face-to-face, just as you would if you were standing in front of them,” Kimbro said.  To Valdillez, technology brings about more efficiency.  “A conversation online or on the phone can be more efficient and not any different than if you were talking to them in person.  Also, with the use of the internet, you can often have multiple conversations in one day,” Valdillez commented.  “You can get more accomplished.”

Finally, the ability to protect client confidences through virtual websites has been a topic of concern.  The North Carolina Bar stated in a published ethics opinion that lawyers “must take reasonable precautions to protect confidential information transmitted to and from the client,” pursuant to Rule 1.6.  Firebrand’s website offers its clients a confidential and secure online service center where clients can check the status of any case, submit and store documents, and contact both McMullan or Valdillez.  Kimbro’s website is also secure.  She emphasizes the importance of using reasonable care to protect client confidences and keeping software current with security updates.

In fact, software use is increasing among law firms as a management tool for cases, documents, and billing.  Known as “Software as a Service,” or SaaS, this specific type of management software is not installed on a single computer or a firm’s server, but is accessed through a web browser over the Internet.  A SaaS system can be helpful to a virtual law practice and was sanctioned for use by the North Carolina Bar.  In a January 2012 ethics opinion, the Bar gave its support of technology used for firm management so long as “reasonable care is taken to minimize the risks of inadvertent disclosure of confidential information and to protect the security of client information and client files.”

Despite the ethical challenges, both Kimbro and Firebrand have been encouraged by what they classify as a growing market of potential clients who are in need of unbundled services and would benefit from virtual interaction.  “I definitely see the market shifting in favor of unbundled services,” said McMullan.  “Even if virtual law practices are still in the minority.”  However, virtual and unbundled legal services can provide more than convenience—such services might be a necessity.  “There is a huge problem in this country of limited access to the justice system,” Kimbro noted.  In addition, pro se litigants have flooded the courts, oftentimes confused and overwhelmed as they try to navigate complicated legal issues and procedures.  “Unbundling can be used as a method to increase access across the board, especially for pro se litigants who would greatly benefit from even just an hour-long meeting to discuss document preparation or litigation strategies,” said Kimbro.  The North Carolina Bar has also spoken to this issue, allowing lawyers to assist pro se litigants without disclosing their assistance to the court or appearing in proceedings.  Though the normal rules of professional conduct still apply, this type of limited representation is exactly what attorneys who provide unbundled or virtual legal services have in mind.

The motivational and entrepreneurial spirit of attorneys like Kimbro and McMullan and Valdillez of Firebrand should be applauded.  The legal profession must be constantly evaluating the broad needs of the market, as well as the specific needs of individuals who are unable to access the benefits of the justice system.  And technology should be welcomed to improve the way clients are served – a picture that seems to be growing into reality.

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About Kathryn Barge Jagoda, Former Associate Editor (10 Articles)
Kathryn graduated from Campbell Law School in 2013. During law school, Kathryn committed her time outside of the classroom to developing a future law career in public service. The summer after her first year of law school, Kathryn interned with the North Carolina Department of Justice in the Transportation Section. During her second year, Kathryn was an intern in both the Federal Public Defender's Office and the office of the Raleigh City Attorney. Kathryn spent her following summer as an intern for Judge Ann Marie Calabria at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Kathryn also served as the vice-president of Campbell's Military Law Student Association, in part to honor the first twenty years of her life spent as an "Army Brat."
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