The practice of law is changing. More to the point, how and where attorneys operate has changed with recent technological developments. The Internet, cloud-based computing, and mobile devices provide (what some would call) the benefit of accessing contacts or materials from just about anywhere on the globe. There are fewer and fewer locales that are truly “off the grid” and there are few instances when someone is completely unreachable. As a result, attorneys practicing today, like many professionals, may not necessarily be bound to the confines of a traditional office setting. At first, many professionals took advantage of these developments while temporarily away from the office at meetings, vacations, or other shorter out-of-office stints. However, this model has drawn interest from attorneys who now opt never to set foot in a traditional office again and instead operate permanent “virtual offices.”
The idea of permanently practicing law from the home may be appealing to some, especially following this season of subzero wind chills and snowy commutes. However, real-world implementation of a “virtual law office” must be accompanied by consideration of the professional duties imposed on every attorney. Indeed, the ethical implications of such virtual offices have prompted many state professional-responsibility organizations to weigh in with guidance for the attorney who opts to establish a practice within this emerging area.
So I Don’t Have to Go to the Office? How Does This Work?
A virtual law office provides legal services to clients almost exclusively using the Internet, electronic messaging, and other technological tools. To give virtual law offices some grounding in the real world, shared spaces are becoming increasingly popular. These arrangements allow attorneys to reduce traditional office costs, because most work is done remotely, yet still maintain an accessible setting to meet in-person with clients and to conduct business. Virtual office plans can include mail services, space for meetings, and access to office equipment and administrative staff, but this space is shared with other tenants.
Advantages include a professional and convenient space to meet with clients, as many virtual offices are in well-appointed high-rise buildings that are accessible by public transportation, without the required lease payments for a traditional office space. Mail services allow law-firm mail to be collected at a corporate address rather than a home address. This feature protects privacy, enhances the professionalism of the office, and provides a recognizable address that can be listed on marketing materials and court filings. Further, many virtual office leases are month-to-month and include multiple locations throughout a region, increasing both flexibility and convenience for in-person meetings.
Perhaps the biggest concern facing attorneys who practice law virtually is the applicable rules of professional conduct. The regulatory questions surrounding the virtual office are now much clearer. Indeed, many state bars and ethics committees have weighed in on the legality of virtual offices and provided instruction for practicing remotely.