Summary of Opinion 2017-05
Issued June 9, 2017
Virtual Law Offices
To keep overheard low and address the ever-thinning profit margin, the new influx of young lawyers branching into private practice are finding alternatives to the standard “brick and mortar” building. One such alternative is a virtual law office (“VLO”) and, unlike your father’s practice, in a VLO, communication between lawyer and client is almost exclusively through email, electronic messaging or other secure Internet portal. In a VLO, lawyers work remotely, clients often can review their files online, and lawyers and clients discuss matters electronically, without meeting in person. In response to this new practice medium, the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct has recently released an advisory opinion on VLO’s. While an Ohio lawyer may provide legal services via a VLO, the lawyer must competently utilize the technology he employs. This includes having a general knowledge of security safeguards for the technology used in the lawyer’s practice and using extra precautions to ensure both the identity of the client and that electronic client communications are adequately understood.
The virtual lawyer must also employ reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent disclosure of client information. This may require the use of a private Wi-Fi network, virtual private network, a firewall or other technology to protect client information. Regarding cloud storage and third-party vendors, a virtual lawyer who relies upon a third-party vendor for the storage or transmission of data must also ensure the vendor’s operations are compatible with the lawyer’s professional obligations.
Finally, all written and electronic communications must include an office address. That address may be a home address; a physical office address; a P.O. Box; or, the address for a shared, non-exclusive space if client confidentiality is preserved.
My opinion is that VLO’s provide valuable services – especially VLO’s with options for answering services, office space and conference rooms – and they are ideal for start-ups or the part-time practitioner. However, a VLO is a business model that focuses on cost-cutting to build revenue. And while managing expenses is key to any successful business, the growth potential with a cost-cutting business model is extremely limited. So, from a growth perspective, unless you intend to be the next LegalZoom, a VLO should be a starting point, not a destination.