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.