A COMPLETELY office-less law firm, Virtual Law Partners (VLP), was recently unveiled in the US.
VLP is based entirely on a digital network, with all lawyers working from home. It is being promoted as 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 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.
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