The First (and hopefully last) Twitter Debate

It could have been great.  It wasn’t.  So we learned that Twitter, beloved of lawyers who drink vente lattes, isn’t the best medium for a debate.  No worries.  It can’t be good for everything, though it’s unclear what it’s good for other than some fun with friends and time sucking.

The ABA Journal  “sponsored” the first ever debate on twitter between Stephanie Kimbro and Brian Tannebaum over Virtual Law Offices—Game Changer or Business as Usual?  It’s not clear how the ABA Journal sponsored it, considering that it cost them nothing and the dirty work was done by moderator Lance Goddard of @22twits

The ABA Journal’s transcript provides just the debater’s twits, while the actual debate was overwhelmed by worthless retwits and dubious thoughts from the peanut gallery that so clogged the stream as to make it a cacophony of noise.  Many of the twits were worthless, either as non-responsive or shallow, but then twitter has never been a good format for conveying any idea deeper than a puddle.  It’s perfect for people who don’t like to think too hard or have very little to say.

The debate itself wasn’t much of a debate, with the two sides largely ignoring the points of disagreement.  Kimbro was largely promoting the concept, independent of the issues raised, but then she’s in the business of selling the platform (a point that was never disclosed).  She had a lot of support, naturally, by lawyers who want to practice from the local coffee shops and are sensitive that they are now viewed as losers and outcasts by lawyers who waste their money on offices.

To a large extent, I have no issue with Virtual Law Offices.  To the extent that Kimbro was selling her platform for lawyers who also have brick & mortar offices, I have no issue at all.  To the extent that lawyers who do transactional work rather than litigation do it in their bathrobes, I still have no issue, with one caveat that I raised during the debate but was never addressed.

For those lawyers with VLOs, where does the client go to find them when there’s a problem with their work and they stop answering their email?  The closest thing to a response I got was clients loved VLO lawyers, so this wasn’t a problem.  Spare me.  There will always be clients who are dissatisfied with a lawyer’s work, and lawyers who only exist on the internet can simply go underground to avoid the irate client. 

While this might be satisfactory for the VLO lawyers, it’s wholly inadequate for the clients, particularly if the client is right and the lawyer’s work was bad, inadequate, late or otherwise problematic.  Platitudes about how it’s all about client satisfaction don’t solve the problem; they have no answer.  The closest attempt to respond was that they can always complain to the disciplinary authorities, as if that helps a client with an emergent problem.  This was a gaping hole in the argument.

The more curious argument asserted was the VLOs fulfill the demands of clients for inexpensive, available legal services.  I’ve no doubt it’s true, that clients want convenient legal services and the lowest possible prices.  One of the VLO supporters, Rich Granat , twitted:

OUr latest survey shows that over half of consumers (56%) want to deal with their lawyers on-line.

My snarky response :

Our surveys show that 97.4% of clients would like their lawyers to work for free. And validate parking.

No one can blame clients for wanting ease and low price.  Who doesn’t?  They also want competent legal services, responsibility and, when things go south, a warm body to scream at.  Clients want it all, as they should.  Lawyers want to recognize only those parts that coincidentally work for them, pretend that they are doing it for the benefit of clients when it’s really for their own personal gain.  That’s just good marketing.  Sure, it’s a lie, but it sounds good.

Much of the debate was spent discussing the value of technology, an issue about which there was no disagreement and yet the pro-VLO supporters kept harping.  It talked about client satisfaction, again no disagreement and yet they kept harping.  It talked about lawyer satisfaction, which raised an issue: 

@BTannebaum : We have lawyers that are laid off, lazy, entitled, and want what they want. They never went to law school to be lawyers

This twit raised an issue that, unfortunately, the format was unable to accommodate.  Given the groundswell of pro-VLO supporters twitting about their right to practice law in the manner that was most suited to their lifestyle choices, it was unfortunate that the format precluded a significant fleshing out of this point.  The practice of law is about clients, not the convenience of lawyers who believe that they are owed a practice that suits their lifestyle.  They want to work when they feel like it and have the practice of law wrap around their convenience. 

There’s nothing client-centric about that.  To the extent that some supporters see this as an entitlement, they are in the wrong profession.  If it happens, on the other hand, that they can provide clients with what they want, need and deserve, while coincidentally doing so in a way that suits the lawyer’s preferences, that’s fine. The lawyers should never, however, misapprehend that the practice of law is all about the lawyer’s convenience.  This entitlement perspective is one that needs to be clearly rejected at every juncture, and yet is becoming a pervasive argument amongst this new breed of lawyers who think that it’s all about their right to make a living in whatever fashion best suits them, even if it’s at the expense of the client. It’s a very dangerous concept.

Having spent an hour of my time following the debate, I was left with three overarching thoughts: (1) I learned nothing new about VLOs, and the forseeable problems remain unresolved; (2) Twitter is a terrible format for a debate;  (3) That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.

To the extent that the VLO position favors the use of technology to enhance the practice of law and better serve clients, that’s great.  That some lawyers can work in their bathrobes from Starbucks, that’s fine too provided they fulfill their professional responsibilities to their clients.  But when this discussion devolves into nonsensical rationalizations that ignore client problems and justify lawyers doing what’s in their own facile self-interest, it fails. 

Like so many reasonably good and interesting ideas in the hands of technophiles, their zeal to serve their own interests allows them to shut their eyes and pretend that there is no potential to harm clients and the profession.  Until they open their eyes, the only ones who will find them persuasive are those similarly inclined to self-interest and willing to lie to themselves.  The future of VLOs is in the hands of those who will address its current faults rather than those who want to spout platitudes and ignore the problems.  I’m not sure they are up to the task based on this twitter debate.

8 comments on “The First (and hopefully last) Twitter Debate

  1. Dave

    I still don’t think that having a brick and mortar office solves the problem of client redress for issues.

    If the number one reason for bar complaints is poor communication, that speaks to the fact that B&M lawyers aren’t doing such a bang-up job with communication, even if the client can go to their office to complain.

    I suppose it’s slightly easier for a VLO attorney to just stop answering e-mails or the phone. But a B&M lawyer can do the same. And as for the client showing up, I’m sure no secretary has ever been instructed by one of those attorneys to tell the client they are in a meeting. Or out of the office. Or in court. Or forced some unwitting associate to deal with the issue instead of confronting the disgruntled client themselves.

    I do think it’s an issue. It’s just not a VLO issue: it’s a professionalism issue.

    At a minimum, an attorney should take their lumps and deal with the client. A *real* professional doesn’t just take their lumps, to me, a real professional *wants* to take the call of an unhappy client. That’s how we learn what we did wrong. Was it failure to correctly set expectations? Did we not update the client enough about progress? Inadequately explain the process? Or just plain screw up? No matter. We are practitioners of a profession, and as such should always be striving to improve our skills, including our client skills.

    And that, to me, applies no matter where you practice.

    To be fair, I don’t think I’ve seen you or Brian say that virtual law offices are a bad thing, when run by professionals who take their obligations seriously. Ultimately, that’s why I think this was a silly debate; the debate should have been with someone who is actually against VLOs entirely.

    What I saw was Steph avoiding the professionalism issues, and Brian trying to debate points that aren’t unique to VLOs, they apply to all lawyers no matter where they practice.

  2. Victor Medina

    I understand that this may not have been at the thrust of the debate between Kimbro and Tannebaum, but another issue that I have raised with Stephanie Kimbro in the past is that these activities begin to commoditize the practice of law – which I think is dangerous. There have been companies that have threatened to do that in the past (LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, software purchased at Staples), but none with the imprimatur of actual lawyers doing actual lawyer work.

    When clients begin to think that engaging a lawyer is as simple and as repeatable as ordering soap from Amazon, it devalues the profession as a whole and places an additional burden on other practitioners who value their counsel much more than their ability to be scriveners. It also does a disservice to clients down the road who begin to accept that proposition and decide not to invest in counsel when they otherwise might. Best analogy I can come up with is the person who decides to do their own plumbing because they can get a book written by an actual plumber at Home Depot. The client might get the same basement full of water at the end of the day.

    Let them practice in their bathrobe as long as they like. It make distinguishing my services that much easier.

    “Why should I hire you, Medina?”
    “Well, I wear pants on a regular basis.”

  3. Turk

    For those lawyers with VLOs, where does the client go to find them when there’s a problem with their work and they stop answering their email?

    The rule in New York, I believe, is that a real address is required. This comes from the pre-Intenet age and concerns over drop boxes being used as offices, for exactly the reasons you discuss

  4. Lisa Solomon

    What kind of emergent problem would lead a client to think that the best way to deal with it would be to just show up at a lawyer’s office, demanding to be seen? Wouldn’t an emergent problem be best dealt with, at least initially, via telephone and/or online communication (via e-mail or through a VLO portal)? If that’s insufficient, the lawyer and client can set up a time to meet at a location that might not qualify as a bona fide office, but which is otherwise appropriate for an attorney/client meeting (e.g., behind the closed doors of an office or conference room at a shared office facility, or even a conference room rented out by your local bar association – something the Westchester County Bar offers).

    If it’s a matter of serving papers on an errant lawyer, there’s still a mailing address (sufficient for some types of service). And, just as service on a corporation can be accomplished by serving the Secretary of State, perhaps a new rule could be implemented under which a lawyer without a bona fide office at which he or she can be found during the business day (paraphrasing the New Jersey BF office rule) is deemed to accept service on the state’s attorney registration office as service on the attorney. Yes, I know that will require money, but perhaps the fee could be imposed only on lawyers without a BF office. Alternatively, since all lawyers pay bar registration fee, the fees could be minimally increased across the board.

    “There will always be clients who are dissatisfied with a lawyer’s work, and lawyers who only exist on the internet can simply go underground to avoid the irate client.” Wrong. As I pointed out during the debate yesterday, in New York (and, I assume, in other states), the attorney registration authority requires that a lawyer provide both a business address and a home address, with the home address not being public. However, why couldn’t a procedure be established whereby a client whose lawyer has disappeared can apply to the registration authority for access to the attorney’s home address and phone number? The bar can assure that this is not abused by attempting contact itself before releasing the information. The bar can mandate that information about this procedure be included in all retainer agreements (in NY, retainer agreements already must advise of the availablity of fee arbitration). I’d be willing to pay slightly higher bar dues (this wouldn’t require that many additional bar employees)to pay for this.

    The bottom line: there’s nothing stopping a lawyer who has a bona fide office from refusing to communicate with (or even just meet in person with) a client.

  5. Lisa Solomon

    I think it’s much more damaging to the profession when someone uses LegalZoom, etc., then ultimately has to litigate (or suffer another type of loss) to fix the problems that relying on LegalZoom, etc. caused.

    I also disagree with the proposition that someone who uses a VLO is more likely to try to handle a legal matter themselves the next time. If it’s easy and affordable to hire a lawyer, why wouldn’t an otherwise satisfied client go back to the same lawyer (or even another lawyer) the next time a legal issue arises? Your plumber analogy is inapt: it makes more sense to analogize the plumber situation to books from Nolo.

    I completely agree with your last point, though: it does make it easier to distinguish your services. Just as there will always be people who drive Lexuses and people who drive Hyundais – whether it’s because they value different things in a car or because they can afford different cars – there will always be people who value what you provide and people who don’t. The trick for you is to reach those who do.

    Finally, I have the same issue in my practice: I provide a bespoke service, for a not insubstantial fee, to lawyers who value what I provide. Lawyers who just want to save a buck can send their legal research and writing work to LPO companies in India.

  6. SHG

    Ordinarily, I would delete a comment of this length since this is my blawg, where I get to discuss what I want, and not the commenter’s, who does not get to use it as her own incredibly boring soapbox.  As a courtesy to you, since I know you have many, many, MANY, words that simply must come out or you will burst, I will allow your comment.  But I have no interest in reading past the first sentence, and will not let you use up any more of my bandwidth.

    I’m sure someone finds you interesting somewhere.  Please go there and write to your heart’s content..

  7. Victor Medina

    Just so that my point is clear, I didn’t mean to suggest that the presence of VLOs will cause people to handle a matter on their own where they had a lawyer before. I was suggesting only that commoditization and unbundling causes clients to have a false sense of security, which is this case is more dangerous than LegalZoom/RocketLawyer because it carries with it the notion that it’s real legal work. It’s much more dangerous in my opinion (which led to my plumbing analogy) because it seems to have the blessing of the professional.

    And to a point in the original post, it doesn’t mean a hoot that the “market demands” this or any form of it. I’m the last person to say that the practice of law isn’t a business, but there are some market forces to which it cannot and should not bend. I understand that legal services are expensive. There are ways to make it more affordable that don’t include changing the quality and nature of how it’s delivered. I don’t think that the fact that clients will (or want to) pay for it should make any difference.

  8. Lee

    I’m cracking up, Scott. Before I even got to your reply (it took a while), I thought of my old friend, Jip, who used to frequent a music message board (do they even have these anymore?) that I did and was very fond of replying to any post that lasted more than 2 paragraphs: “I’m not reading all that.” Its exactly what I thought as I read Lisa’s comment.

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