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January 21, 2008

Virtual Law Office(VLO) - It's Not Your Mother's Law Office - Guest Blogger, Stephanie Kimbro

(UPDATE:  1/22/08 - A nice addition to this particular conversation)

Guest Blogger Stephanie Kimbro is an attorney practicing in Wilmington, North Carolina.  I asked Stephanie if she would guest post on Build A Solo Practice because she represents, in my opinion, the law office of many future solos.  She operates her office completely virtual.  And she offers unbundled legal services and publishes her prices on her site. While there might be others out there doing this or attempting to do so, Stephanie's is fully operational. 

Virtual Solo - Stephanie Kimbro

My solo law practice is a completely virtual law office (vlo) which operates from a web-based application. More specifically it is a secure (https), hosted, software as a service (SaaS) application. I access my entire office wherever I can access the Internet and the same goes for my clients.

My vlo is my entire law office. My client files, client data, billing, invoices, accounts receivable, other accounting and administrative tools, calendars and other data management tools are located in the backend of the office. I have a central point where all of my cases are organized and it shows me the status and priority for better time management.

Unlike standard law firm websites, I do not use email or “fill in the form” requests with my online clients. Email is most often not encrypted so it is not as secure as https communication. My vlo is also not a legalzoom.com or nolo.com website where the public can purchase form-generated legal documents.

On my client’s side, they have access to their own homepages where they may view all of our online communications, pay me online, download and upload documents, and update client data, among other features. My clients feel like they can communicate with me 24/7 and on weekends which is a convenience to them and helps them feel like they are kept current on the status of the legal services they have asked me to work on.

The vlo is a convenience to me because I do not have to respond only during business hours but can set my own schedule. I have a 24 hour policy of responding to clients on the website even if it’s just a quick “thank you for contacting me….” I have a folder of standard responses for certain requests that come up on a regular basis so it takes a minimal amount of time to handle client intake. The new or updated client feels attended to and then I can better allocate my time towards actual legal research or drafting based on the priority of the cases I have lined up. ….” If I take a vacation or a few days away from work, I let my existing clients know through their homepages that my response time will be longer than usual.

Why did I decide to run a solo vlo and provide services on a fixed price basis?

There were two reasons for creating the vlo: the personal (wanting a better work/life balance that I could control) and the practical (law school loans must be repaid). Necessity is the mother of invention.

As for the practical, a virtual law office that runs on a web-based application means minimal overhead and minimized startup costs. To open the doors to my solo, so to speak, I did not have to invest in computers, hardware or software and could use the equipment and internet connection I already had.

With a virtual law office, I tap into the online consumers and broaden my client base to the entire state where I am licensed and even to clients in other states with N.C. legal issues. This allows me to compete with larger firms, especially those that have planted branches of their Biglaw firms in our small town. Having access to a larger potential client base also lessened the amount of startup time that it took for my solo to get a decent client base and get off the ground.

Before I started the vlo, I spent a couple years researching the feasibility of offering unbundled legal services online and how that would work for a solo. From my previous experience in a larger firm, clients do not always “get” the billable hour even after signing retainer agreements. I also noticed a large segment of the public who need transactional legal work handled but who want to do the footwork themselves. That is a significant market need that the right technology could be used to fill.

As far as billing practices, I actually keep my billing options flexible. I list sample prices on my vlo website to give potential clients an idea of the price ranges, but I provide them with a price quote based on the information they give me in our communications after they register with the vlo. I occasionally use the billable hour with clients when they come back to me and want additional work handled that extends beyond our original, agreed upon project. I also offer payment plans for clients if from our communications I think that it would be easier for them to budget.

I handle billing on a case by case basis and the software application allows for that flexibility. If I wanted to revert to a billable hour only method I could do so but I would be giving the client that billable hour to accept rather than a fixed price. Their acceptance of the quoted fee along with the terms and conditions that they accept and our initial communications all make up the equivalent of a traditional retainer agreement. In some cases, I do require a retainer fee before starting work. Again, as in a physical law office and in any small business, how I decide to structure the fees depends on multiple factors, including the client’s legal matter, who referred them, etc.

About the Technology

For over two years my programmer husband and I have worked on developing the vlo software application. A patent was filed for the vlo technology in the summer of 2007. We formed a company called Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC (VLOTech) which will serve both as a company to provide vlo technology to other attorneys but also as a portal for the public to find or be referred to vlos offering the legal services they are seeking.

In developing the software application, security was our primary concern so it has been designed with this as the primary foundation. As new concerns in technology security arise, new protections or modifications are made. My husband has ten years of experience in writing security programs, including those for state government and court systems. We are bootstrapping our company and doing something we believe will make a positive difference in the lives of others in the legal profession and for those in the public seeking a more accessible and convenient way to obtain legal services.

We have a handful of attorneys who will begin using the release version of the virtual law office technology this year. Most of these attorneys are solos who have contacted us wanting to set up virtual law offices similar to my practice.

I certainly do not think that vlos will ever replace brick and mortar law offices but I think they will provide another option for attorneys wanting their own solos or for existing law firms that want to tap into the online market to generate additional client revenue. The public is ready for this form of communication with attorneys, and in my opinion, the public will ultimately be what drives the profession into this method of practicing the law.

Kimbro Legal Services, LLC
Stephanie L. Kimbro, Esq., M.A., J.D.
(910) 762-3698 office
(910) 619-5530 cell
P.O. Box 4484
Wilmington, NC 28406
Featured in Lawyers USA and NC Lawyers Weekly.
Winner of the 2007 Wilmington Parent Family Favorite Award.

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Comments

David Little

Stephanie:

I am fascinated by your firm business model. I have practiced law for seven years now, and went solo at the beginning of this year. The biggest reason was because I felt that law firm culture stifled creativity. I always felt that the practice of law was in desperate need of greater use of technology, and the practitioners who embrace technology will be the successful attorneys of tomorrow. Your firm is the first real embodiment of that vision that I have seen. I would like to learn more about how you set up your firm, and the development of the software and interface you use!

Meleisa  Lane

My firm's site, www.VirtualLawFirm.com, possibly inspired the strikingly similar business model featured here. My husband (who is also my law partner) and I are the lawyers who obtained the North Carolina State Bar ethics opinion that allowed us to launch our virtual law office years ago. We changed our URL and updated our web content in 2007, but our virtual practice preceded the site that is featured here. For some time now, we have offered individualized and unbundled legal services here in North Carolina. Our virtual clientele obtain a secure login through which they consult with experienced trial, business, divorce and appellate attorneys. Individualized legal pleadings, contracts, business formations and various legal documents are provided online based upon information that is provided through online inquiries. We also assist with litigation strategy and nearly any legal matter for which clients retain brick and mortar law offices. Of course, we also have the experience and ability to accept full representation should virtual clientele seek the same at any time. Attorney Freddie Lane and I have been North Carolina judicial clerks. We are also experienced trial lawyers who have worked in a large law firm as well as in smaller but highly respected firms handling complex litigation, appeals, business matters, divorces and child custody disputes. Our successful brick and mortar practice allows us to keep our skills sharp with clients who prefer a lawyer who they can see, touch and direct. However, we are very proud to have "The Virtual Law Firm" through which we are North Carolina's first lawyers to seek this wonderful means of fulfilling what has clearly been a need for unbundled legal services offered through the web. Please know, I am not merely tooting the horn for www.VirtualLawFirm.com. I am attempting to continue to inspire other lawyers to seek what one former bar counsel termed "novel" ways of providing affordable, ethical, competent and zealous legal assistance.

Garrett Worley

Thanks for linking to my post.

I think VLO technology is going to lead to some interesting developments. As I noted on my blog, Delta Law Group has expanded by relying on a network of solos in the Pittsburgh area. It's foreseeable that with VLO technology, a network of solos from around the world could band together to create a global "firm."

We've already seen this (to a limited extent) with the ABA's SoloSez listserv. The ABA Journal recently reported that there are 3,100 members of SoloSez. While the member interaction and referrals are remarkable, imagine what SoloSez could accomplish as a VLO relying on a network of thousands of solos instead of just a listserv.

Something to think about.

Lori Smith

This is fascinating. As a big firm lawyer considering alternatives to better serve a client base that is not well suited the billable hour model, I would love to know if this is approved for use in New York and/or New Jersey. I have been talking to clients about a way to be in-house with one but still have a practice on the side.

Stephanie Kimbro, Esq.

Hi, Lori. To answer your question, VLOTech is setting up a VLO in New York the first of this year. I have spoken with attorneys in New Jersey, but as of this point VLOTech does not have any VLOs set up with the technology there yet.

In general, anyone interested in virtual law practice should check out Richard Susskind's new book "The End of Lawyers?". It describes "disruptive technologies" providing the delivery of online legal services as the future of the legal profession.

Linda Long, Q.C.

We are, of course, anxious to know if you have come north of the border into Canada yet?
I live in an area where senior family law counsel are in short supply and I travel a great deal; vlo services are something I have been building towards for years. If you have already built the mousetrap, I want it and how soon can I have it?

Stephanie Kimbro, Esq.

Hi, Linda. Thank you for your interest. Yes, VLOTech would be able to set up a virtual law office in Canada. We have spoken with several other attorneys up north who are also interested in virtual law practices using the technology. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the technology or virtual law practice in general.

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