Ethical Considerations for Virtual Law Offices (VLOs) in North Carolina

Whether your goal is to save on expenses or maintain as much personal freedom as possible (or, as is perhaps most common, a combination of both), operating a virtual law office (VLO) has grown into a viable option within the legal profession. These days, more lawyers are spending the majority of their time working from home, having less direct contact with clients, and relying heavily – if not exclusively – on the Internet in all aspects of their practice.

While virtual law offices are subject to the same ethical requirements as more-traditional law firms, practicing in a VLO raises some unique ethical considerations as well. For example:

1. VLOs and UPL

Thanks to the Internet, a home-based solo practitioner can reach a worldwide audience with the click of a button. While this can be a good thing for demonstrating your competence and capabilities (i.e. through blog articles, third-party publications and other forms of content marketing), it also raises some potential concerns about the unauthorized practice of law (UPL).

With regard to issues of UPL, North Carolina’s Rules of Professional Conduct (the “Rules”) not only address attorneys licensed in the state, but also those licensed in other jurisdictions who are targeting in-state residents and businesses. Other states have similar rules as well. As a result, the North Carolina State Bar advised in a 2006 Formal Ethics Opinion that, “a prudent lawyer may want to research other jurisdictions' restrictions on advertising and cross-border practice to ensure compliance before aggressively marketing and providing legal services via the internet.”

2. Convenience vs. Competence and Conflict Avoidance

Another potential concern for virtual lawyers touches on one of the most-basic rules of ethical practice: providing competent representation to the client. When communications take place over email, in chats and text messages, and through standardized questionnaires and forms, it is possible for both the lawyer’s and the client’s (or prospective client’s) intent to get lost in translation. While operating a virtual practice gives lawyers the freedom to be available 24/7 (or not), it also raises the risk that the quality of the representation will be inherently impaired.

The same issues also raise potential concerns regarding conflict checks. Identifying potential conflicts often requires an in-depth discussion so that the lawyer can gain a clear understanding of the prospect’s business or personal circumstances. In many cases, prospective clients will need to be educated on the issue of conflicts in general as well. Without adequate communication, lawyers may find it difficult to be confident that they are complying with the Rules’ conflict-of-interest requirements.

3. Electronic Records and Confidentiality

While there are now numerous service providers that offer online document storage specifically designed for VLOs and other law firms, the recent Yahoo data breach and other high-profile cases show that data security remains a significant concern. Internet-based law firms must not only make sure that their file storage systems meet the necessary standards, but that their email applications and other communication tools sufficiently protect their clients’ confidential information.

Contact Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan, PLLC

Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan, PLLC is a law firm with offices in Raleigh, NC that represents attorneys in matters involving ethical issues and professional license defense. If you have questions about establishing a virtual law office, or if you are facing an ethical issue in your practice, call (919) 833-3114 or contact us online for a confidential consultation.