Virtually Normal

There was no parade down virtual main street to announce the news, which comes as no surprise. After all, a thousand blog posts, marketeers, phony conventions dedicated to the Future of the New Normal of #Reinvent Law, where hungry early adopters filled empty days singing Hosanna whenever an iToy was mentioned, never considered the possibility that it wouldn’t work out. It had to, they thought.

As Carolyn Elefant posts at My Shingle, it didn’t have to.

According to the 2013 ABA Legal Technology Survey, virtual law practices are on the decline, reports  Bob Ambrogi at his Law Sites Blog. The decrease isn’t particularly significant; the number of lawyers who describe their practice as virtual declined from 7 to 5 percent between 2012 and 2013, while the number of lawyers providing unbundled legal services (an offering common to many virtual practices) declined from a high of 44 percent in 2012 to 25 percent, in line with 2011.

Does this mean the curmudgeons were right all along, that there is no New Normal? Hardly, and for those who are hard of reading, that’s not exactly what the curmudgeons were saying to begin with.

Ultimately, technology is a tool (say it with me, now!); it is not a business model any more than a telephone or voice mail or an electronic word processor. Lawyers need to figure out how they want to incorporate virtual and unbundled services into their respective practices – for some lawyers (even someone like me, with more high end services), unbundled offerings make sense, for other lawyers they don’t. But merely because we have the technology to enable virtual law firms or various other types of practices, doesn’t mean they make sense for your practice.

Sad as that may make some of the advocates, the people who write books about VLPs and put videos of themselves on Youtube to extol their virtues, as if virtual practices were a new creature that emerged from the primordial swamp of the internet to take over the law, there is a reason that it’s not taking over the legal profession by storm, with even those who self-identified as adopters dropping the claim. It’s not the New Normal. It’s not law #Reinvented. It’s just another tool in the box, that can be used when it’s in everyone’s best interest and put away when it’s not.

Naturally, as early adopting, tech-loving lawyers are coming to grips with this reality, a law school has hopped aboard the tech caboose in an effort to create some demand for its seats in a terrible market that otherwise can’t justify its existence. And in doing so, it proves why it has no reason to exist. Via Jordan Rushie, Florida Coastal Law School is creating the Center for Law Practice Technology.

Richard Granat and Stephanie Kimbro, acknowledged leaders in the online legal  technology movement, have been appointed as Co-Directors of the CLPT.

“At its core, the certificate offered through the center will ensure students graduate with the technological competence all lawyers need in light of the demands of the profession, namely how to leverage technology to serve clients more effectively and efficiently,” Granat said. “However, we also understand it is perhaps even more important to prepare students for new positions in the burgeoning market of companies offering technology solutions for legal services, including electronic discovery, legal process outsourcing, law practice management software, automated document assembly and more.”

Both huge tech advocates, Richard Granat has a company offering “virtual law practice solutions” and Stephanie Kimbro is the Princess of VLPs. Neither has good timing, apparently, and their further push into Florida Coastal, the Harvard of Jacksonville, a for-profit law school owned by Infilaw Corp., occupying an unranked place in the bottom tier, may prove somewhat embarrassing. Perhaps their next foray into tech will be to retain Brand.com to improve their reputation so they aren’t permanently tainted by this ill-advised move.

Carolyn offers a list of reasons why virtual law practice is quietly dying, and while the points she makes are good, it strikes me that her first point presents the overarching reason:

Almost three years ago, the blogosphere (in one of its last rare rounds of interactive discussion) debated whether virtual law practices were a viable business model.  I’ve long observed that while  solos ought to offer a “cheap and simple” option through leveraging virtual tools, in the long run, subsisting on a stream of low-end one off cases alone can’t work without the kinds of economies of scale that solos and smalls don’t have – and as a result, they fall victim to the perils of a volume practice.

Hungry and desperate lawyers are easy prey to new ideas wrapped up in flowing adjectives and shiny iToys. But as has always been the case, the facility with which easy answers are marketed has no bearing on the practicality and efficacy of an idea.

It’s time to put this puppy to bed. There is no future for the Virtual Law Practice. There never was. And yet, the VLP exists in every law practice, as we all have telephones and email, and when a client from across the country needs a far-away lawyer, we have the tools to represent them without the need for a business class ticket.

As I’ve been warning for years now, these are all tools in a lawyer’s arsenal, some large and some puny, some more useful and others to be pulled out for that one in a thousand moment when it’s useful. For the poor students of Florida Coastal, who have far greater problems to confront from their law school choice than this silly new program, they will learn that the only movement that will serve them well is the one toward competence and integrity.

The “online legal technology movement” will fade of its own accord, because it exists only in the minds of its cheerleaders. Clients want good, trustworthy, hard-working lawyers, and the mechanics of the delivery of legal services only concern them to the extent it facilitates achieving their legal ends. There is no movement. There never was.

When the next technological tool is created, there will be a new guru proclaiming it the new normal and admonishing all hungry and desperate lawyers to get on board before it’s too late. When it happens, ask them how the whole virtual law practice worked out for them.

 

 

13 comments on “Virtually Normal

  1. David Sugerman

    Yes, but. The “but” is that tech has radically changed the structure of our practices, especially solos and small firms. The scope and rate of change are such that what I do and how I do it were impossible to foresee just two decades ago. As you and Carolyn correctly conclude, the tech-driven structural changes do not change the fundamentals. That said, the changes make today’s practice very different. Who knows what it looks like when you and I are twitting (or whatever we will be doing) across the continent from our respective assisted living units, after the kids have replaced us.

    1. SHG Post author

      It will look a lot like when I went from using carbon paper and a Selectric III to a copy machine and a word processor. But radical change? Nah. Some better tools (and a lot of useless ones as well) to do the same things. We can crank out docs at a rate unimaginable 20 years ago, but our docs are no better than we write them, just like the old days.

      1. David Sugerman

        No and yes. The radical change is about the structure. I could not do what I do now without being 3-5 times larger. And even then, I would not be able to do nearly as many cases. Tech tools/changes have shrunken the employment market and level me up to fight with the biggest and baddest. But yes, the fundamentals do not change. If I cannot write, take a deposition, conduct voir dire, etc., the shiniest new toy is useless. Related: Do you need any thermal paper? I may have some spare rolls. A little yellow, but still serviceable, I think.

  2. Marilou Auer

    While you gentlemen are twitting from your rocking chairs, the smart kids will still be seeking your counsel and working hard toward competence and integrity, and they will be learning to use tools that we can’t even conceive to achieve those goals. The less-smart kids, not so much.

  3. BRIAN TANNEBAUM

    There’s another lesson here. Lawyers need to stop buying in to the self-fulfilled prophecy that everything new is the “next big thing.” There are people trying to make a living simply convincing lawyers that the smaller toy that does the same thing as the bigger toy is essential to any law practice. Then, when confronted on why they try to tell lawyers this is essential to being a good lawyer, say they never said that. It’s a circle of deception. Toys and buttons and screens may make it easier to communicate, but you still have to have something to communicate.

    1. SHG Post author

      That is a very deep, thoughtful observation. You should consider writing a column for a blog that caters to the future lawyers of America and their insatiable thirst for such deep, thoughtful observations?

    1. SHG Post author

      It appears that the Virtual Law Practice has failed poor yet perky Rachel as well, forcing her start up a new business (ever the entrepreneur) as the Small Business Bodyguard, as found by Jordan Rushie. There is so much wrong with this, so very much, that it warrants its own post, though I hesitate lest I beat up again on a baby lawyer for whom ethics are the chains old lawyers use to bind the free spirit of the young.

  4. Carolyn Elefant

    Scott,

    Thanks for the additional conversation. This line is key:

    And yet, the VLP exists in every law practice, as we all have telephones and email, and when a client from across the country needs a far-away lawyer, we have the tools to represent them without the need for a business class ticket.

    This point is what many of the commenters at my site seem to be saying.

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