Could the days of sweeping harbour views, grand oak desks and bookshelves full of law reports soon be behind us?
The fact that technology has made the practice of law more flexible and efficient is hardly breaking news. Thanks to e-discovery, information can be compiled and analysed in a fraction of the time it used to take, and BlackBerries mean that solicitors and barristers can be contacted anywhere, at any time. But could we actually be moving towards an era where technology renders even a physical office obsolete?
Derek Minus is about to launch Australia's first virtual chambers - Mediation & Arbitration Chambers. As the name suggests, the online chambers will focus exclusively on dispute resolution, and it aims to bring a number of arbitration and mediation specialists under a single, easily accessible, umbrella organisation.
According to Minus, there are currently a large number of solicitors and barristers who are also qualified in mediation and/or arbitration but who have difficulty promoting that side of their practice. This, Minus said, has resulted in an information gap between those who are qualified to provide arbitration and mediation services, and those who need them. One of the aims of the chambers is to close that gap.
"Firstly, it's for people in the profession who wish to make [mediation/arbitration] a bigger part of their career path and promote themselves as mediators or arbitrators. Through this virtual chambers they can have a different profile, be in a different space, and be seen as a dispute resolver, without leaving their building - without giving up their day job, as it were," Minus said.
"Secondly, it's for solicitors or barristers who are looking for a mediator for a particular dispute, or even for members of the public."
Minus explained that the chambers is based on a sophisticated telecommunications platform that runs out of Sydney. Members of the chambers will be able receive phone calls, voice messages and documents relevant to their matters from anywhere with internet access in Australia, effectively enabling them to run their practices nationally.
"It's suited for people who are moving into the next generation of legal work - whether they're a solicitor or barrister," Minus said. "It's the ability to be available anywhere - at home, in another state - and to be able to operate independently.
"You don't have to physically be in chambers anymore, and you don't need a library - the libraries are all on the internet now," said Minus. And while a virtual chambers is one thing, over in the US a completely office-less law firm, Virtual Law Partners (VLP), was recently unveiled.
VLP is based entirely on a digital network, with all lawyers working from home. It is being promoted as being able to provide quality legal services at lower rates than conventional law firms, on account of the fact that it has none of the costs associated with a physical office.
It also claims to be able to provide its lawyers - who all have a minimum of five years' experience at a major law firm or equivalent - with a better work/life balance.
It was founded by lawyers RoseAnn Rotandaro and Andrea Chavez and businessman Craig Johnson, who are now the firm's president, executive partner and CEO respectively. The firm, which currently has around 15 lawyers, provides a range of general commercial legal services, with the exception of litigation.
The NSW Legal Services Commissioner, Steve Mark, said he could see the potential for the concept to be replicated successfully in Australia. He does, however, have some concerns about how such a structure could affect lawyer-client relationships.
"The fact that they are providing these services at reduced fees is a good thing. However on another level it causes me concern, and that is because it shifts the focus away from the inter-relationship between the lawyer and the client to the pure mechanical duties of a lawyer," Mark said.
"It may remove a lot of the esoteric and deep-thinking role that a lawyer would play in trying to address a client's situation and provide them with a solution or a strategic direction to a problem."
In particular, Mark believes that the focus on saving money could potentially come at the cost of client service.
"As we move towards a commoditised world of legal practice, the continued focus on profit or cost - rather than value and effectiveness - is one that causes me concern," he said.
"We don't want to move towards a situation where the lawyers are only chosen because of their cost rather than the value that they provide. I think the profession of law still requires a very strong element of
value-adding and any diminution of that would be a bad thing both for the profession and for clients."
Mark also foresees that co-ordinating and operating a large firm with an entirely virtual structure could be logistically very challenging.
"The whole concept of supervising junior lawyers - growth education, training and involvement in the development of the firm - is very difficult to assess or control," he said. "And complaints made against such a firm would be difficult to source and be difficult to resolve because it may be unclear where the actual work was done or who has done the work."
This is particularly problematic, Mark said, because under the current system, complaints about professional conduct can be made only about individual legal practitioners, as opposed to firms.
"This will probably add to a growing concern that we might have to start looking at complaints against firms, and the liability of the firm ... and that will really reshape the whole concept of what professional conduct is," he said.