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Bar News - September 18, 2009


Virtual Law 1.0: Manchester Firm Offers Online Services

By:


John Deachman of Craig, Deachman & Cowie in Manchester.
Five months ago, the Manchester firm, Craig, Deachman & Cowie, took a bold step into the future of the delivery of legal services with the creation of the state’s first virtual law firm: NHVirtualLaw.com.

Made possible by the rules allowing unbundled legal services and by advances in Internet technology, the site offers clients a virtual law office experience. Users are more than just pro se litigants seeking documents; they are actual clients of the law firm in need of only a small piece of legal advice or information and the attorneys running NHVirualLaw.com are happy to help.

For years now, legal websites like LegalZoom and Nolo.com – which provide documents for pro se litigants – have been slowly chipping away at the market share for attorneys hoping to provide true legal service to clients. By targeting the online market, the law firm hopes to provide services to clients who would not normally make their way into the office.

It is important to note, however, that NHVirtualLaw.com is not a replacement for real-life law practice. In fact, the law firm, which has four full-time attorneys at its Manchester office, still gets the majority of its business from in-office clients. Rather, NHVirtualLaw.com is a complement to the law firm’s practice, one that John Deachman – a partner at the firm – believes is a largely untapped and potentially lucrative market.

"Virtual" clients start by creating an account at the website and by selecting the area of law that they need help with and paying a fee for legal service. Once they answer a brief questionnaire, the necessary documents are generated and a notice is sent to the firm, where an attorney reviews the papers and provides follow-up counsel as needed.

John Deachman, a partner at Craig, Deachman & Cowie, said that his firm had been working on developing a system of online practice for years, but were consistently stymied by the costs. At the start of this year, however, they discovered DirectLaw, a Maryland-based company founded by Richard Granat, a Maryland attorney. For a monthly fee, DirectLaw provides the virtual law firm structure that powers NHVirtualLaw.com. "We signed up with DirectLaw early this year and then spent six-to-eight weeks beta testing everything," said Deachman. "We created client-intake procedures and made sure we could do the proper conflict checks. We even sent a couple of our in-house clients to the website to test it."

A full ethical evaluation was also completed to ensure that the NHVirtualLaw.com website was compliant with all of the rules that apply to running a normal law practice, from billing and unlawful practice of law to conflict checks and confidentiality. Mitchell Simon, an of-counsel attorney for Devine Millimet in Manchester and a full-time professor at the Pierce Law Center in Concord, conducted the evaluation.

"Every time you do something non-traditional you run the risk of crossing the rules, so the firm asked me to conduct an evaluation," said Simon. "I made sure that the proper conflict checks were in place and that there was no out-of-state practice and everything checked out."

To get the word out in advance of going public with the site, the firm sponsored the WMUR Job Fair in March and placed numerous print advertisements. On Easter Sunday, Deachman attended an Easter egg hunt with friends and as the children laughed, scrambling in search of candy-filled plastic eggs, Deachman’s BlackBerry began buzzing.

"I had an e-mail saying that I had just received $175. Someone had just purchased a simple LLC agreement. [That] was cool," he said. "People are talking online, banking online; they’re doing everything online. This is just the next logical step."

That the public has been using the Internet for legal advice can be witnessed in part with the drastically increased numbers of pro se litigants and by the record growth of law-related information websites like RocketLawyer.com, LegalDocs.com, Nolo.com, LegalZoom, and others. Even Staples – the office supply store – provides living wills and business formation forms for sale.

While sites like this may go a long way toward informing the public about legal matters, Deachman says there’s something lacking in websites that offer legal information without legal advice from a real attorney.

Deachman recalls an early virtual client. The client visited the office and wanted to get a quick divorce but had little income to pay for an attorney. Deachman sent him to NHVirtualLaw.com, where he could pay a substantially lower fee, fill out a questionnaire and get the documents he needed to file for divorce. The man followed the instructions provided on the website, paid for the NH Divorce documents – currently listed on the website for $316 for a couple with no minor children – completed the questionnaire, and submitted his documents.

"On the New Hampshire divorce documents there’s a place where you select the reason for the divorce. You can choose ‘irreconcilable differences’ or ‘other,’" said Deachman. "Well, this gentleman chose ‘other’ and proceeded to write out a laundry list of complaints."

Had the man purchased the documents from a non-firm website, he would’ve completed the documents and filed them with the court, resulting in a much more time-consuming and costly divorce procedure, but since each document that passes through NHVirtualLaw.com is reviewed before the client receives it, Deachman was able to show the man that simply checking ‘irreconcilable differences’ would be more effective.

"Just a little advice smoothes out the process for everyone," said Deachman. "It’s better for attorneys, clients and even for the courts."

Users of NHVirtualLaw.com can also opt for a one-hour in-office conference for an additional fee. Though few take advantage of the offer, Deachman says that offering such services provides another level of access for clients at a relatively low price.

Prominently featured on the website as well are the options to conduct one-time meetings via telephone – $39 – and e-mail - $24. There’s even a court-counseling conference available for $195; users taking advantage of this option are granted an opportunity to go to the firm’s office for a counseling session which explains to the client how to navigate the sometimes-turbulent court process.

On the firm’s side, the NHVirtualLaw.com site operates much more affordably for attorneys as well, Deachman says. Since there are no hard copy client files, no need for support staff organization of meeting set-ups and the like, NHVirtualLaw.com is able to keep costs very low compared to the firm’s usual in-office expenses.

"Most online clients do not call the office. They expect to communicate via computer," said Deachman. "It cuts costs and the prices reflect that."

While this model is still in its infancy, Deachman says that the virtual law office has a steady client base of about 35-to-40 regular clients.

The website attracts a variety of potential clients, including those looking for family law advice and business creation information, Deachman says. The site also receives regular bankruptcy inquiries, and perhaps surprisingly, employment law inquiries.

"People sometimes come to us with a termination agreement that they’d like to have reviewed," Deachman said. "It’s great because we can do that all online."

Though NHVirtualLaw.com hasn’t yet earned enough income to cover the extensive advertising campaign cost, Deachman is optimistic for the future of virtual law.

If lawyers don’t respond, they’re going to lose market share to the people that aren’t providing good services," he said. "It {the growth of virtual law) is inevitable. It has the potential to open up the law to people that are virtually – no pun intended – unrepresented."

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