Tips for Establishing A Virtual Law Practice

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New Jersey, which several years ago fought and eventually conceded on the idea that lawyers could be rated and ranked, now has made at least a partial concession on another aspect of modern legal practice.

Effective Feb. 1, according to a January pronouncement by the New Jersey Supreme Court, Rule 1:21-1(a) no longer obligates attorneys to maintain a traditional bricks-and-mortar office as a condition for practicing law in that state. However, the ruling is not a whole-hearted endorsement of virtual offices. Lawyers admitted in New Jersey must still:

  • Ensure "prompt and reliable communication" with clients, other attorneys and courts, such as a telephone service staffed during ordinary business hours, or a promptly returned voicemail or email service;

  • Be available for in-person consultations at mutually convenient times and places if clients so request; and

  • Designate an actual location for inspection of files and records, hand deliveries and service of process, including registration for service with the clerk of courts.

And as a final point, lawyers licensed in other states who practice in New Jersey still must maintain a physical office in the state.

New Jersey's action simply recognizes current practice realities. Lawyers not only increasingly communicate with their clients through email, Skype and texting, clients in many cases actually prefer that kind of contact since they find it difficult to take time off to meet an attorney in person.

Moreover, the rule change benefits lawyers who, by choice or necessity, are starting their own practices. These new attorneys now do not have to worry about spending money to rent an office, and can even practice directly from a home location.

Presumably, their costs will be lower and reflected in the fees that they charge to clients.

The e-lawyering task force of the American Bar Association's Law Practice Management Section ( has put together a comprehensive online portal to discuss the ethical and practical issues involved with a virtual law practice.

"To be successful in the coming era, lawyers will need to know how to practice over the web, manage client relationships in cyberspace, and ethically offer ‘unbundled' services," the task force states, offering a variety of resources to advise telecommuting lawyers about the potentials and pitfalls.

But remember, if a virtual law office or law practice is acceptable, a virtual lawyer is not. The attractions of a virtual office must be balanced by consideration of its limitations.

When it comes to a virtual practice, value is determined by the client, not the lawyer. If the attorney does not educate the client about the cost and convenience of a virtual practice, and the client does not recognize and agree to that value, the result is misunderstanding and miscommunication — and possibly a malpractice suit. The key to avoiding ethics problems in a successful virtual practice is to fulfill all ethical requirements while conveying the value of the arrangement to the client.

Clients may be more inclined to flexibility about where a lawyer practices if they are sure they can always get in touch when they need to. Cost efficiency will not outweigh inaccessibility.

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