A year ago in My Shingle, Carolyn Elefant's excellent blog for solo lawyers, she posted Virtual Firms on the Decline – Why?? She cited surveys showing that fewer lawyers self-identified as "virtual law firms," and stimulated a vibrant comment thread at the time. Someone seems to have stumbled upon it recently and added a comment, the alert for which caused me to revisit the thread. As I reread the comment thread, I was struck by a thought that rendered the entire discussion moot: Simply apply the dictionary definition of "virtual,” which is, "...not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so."
That means that a virtual law firm would be one in which software would actually be doing the lawyering, i.e., functioning in a way to appear to be an actual lawyer. A virtual lawyer would be an avatar with which clients interact online to accomplish the legal service purpose. The "lawyer" doesn't exist, but software makes it appear that she does. IMO, little to none of what appears in this comment thread aligns well with that definition; it’s more about a "virtual office," or virtual filing clerk, or virtual billing clerk, etc.
My comment a year ago was a broad stroke negating the utility of the term itself:
I think the posters who challenge the significance of the terminology rather than the function are on the right track. We all remember the dot-com boom, when every company's name included ".com". That faded, and in the early 2000s, any kind of Internet-based delivery got branded e-this and e-that. As online technology adoption became universal, the significance of the e- prefix dissipated to the point where you rarely see it anymore. As others have pointed out, "virtual-" as a prefix is next in line for the tar pits. It no longer has any more distinction than does "e-".
It's not that electronic delivery of services isn't important, only that the label isn't. It was a short-lived phenomenon, left in the dust by the rapidity of technology adoption. This is simply the recurring phenomenon of early adopters using terminology that identifies them as such. When whatever it is goes mainstream, the early adopter labels become irrelevant.
Offering legal services online does not constitute virtuality. For example, one lawyer posted,
“I also don't know what the term means. I've considered myself a virtual lawyer because I don't have a storefront practice (with office, infrastructure, etc.), do my work from wherever I am, and can be just as reachable in one place as another thanks to the Internet and the telephone. I am starting to think I'd like a bit more infrastructure than I currently have, but even then I might still consider myself a "virtual lawyer" since given the nature of my practice I almost rarely have need to actually meet my clients.”
This lawyer isn’t virtual; he’s still doing the work. Not having a physical office isn’t virtuality. Think way, way back when meeting face-to-face gradually gave way to greater interaction by telephone and email. The bricks and mortar law office was no longer part of most clients’ experience with a lawyer, especially if they were geographically remote. That didn’t make it virtual any more than using a computer now does. Unless the computer system performs the actual legal service, replacing the lawyer with an electronic interaction, it’s not virtual.
The upshot is, forget virtual lawyering.
To achieve the necessary degree of simulation and virtualization, in a rewarding enough user experience to appeal to clients, would cost more than you can imagine. (After spending more than a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars developing RainmakerVT’s interactive virtual biz dev training for lawyers, I’m certain of this.)
Focus your efforts on using technology to achieve greater operational efficiency, reducing cost and assigning the tedious parts of your practice to your computer. Eliminating data-centric drudge work will make your practice more enjoyable and allow you to concentrate your time and attention on more valuable aspects such as analysis, strategic decision-making and making clients comfortable with their decisions and actions.
In RainmakerVT’s interactive simulations, both you and the sales coach are virtual. Your avatar progresses through simulated networking events, sales calls and other biz dev challenges, receiving real-time guidance as you decide what to say or do next. You learn and practice in the safety of our virtual world, where nobody sees your mistakes but you. The only thing the real world experiences is the competent, confident you.