By MJ Goodwind
For 2010, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was Mark Zuckerberg, a young man who was born the year that I graduated from high school. He is a 26 year old billionaire and the founder of FaceBook. Now, if you don’t know what FaceBook is, I can’t imagine how you come to be reading an online newspaper. But in the interest of clarity, I will say that FaceBook is a social networking site with so many members that if it were a country, it would be the third largest in the world. This mega-empire was founded in Zuckerberg’s college dorm room. It is an electronic world.
I began law school in 1988. At that time, though from a family considered fairly well off, I did not own a personal computer. There were only three or four people in my law school class that owned computers at that time. Computerized legal research was in its infancy and was very expensive. Now, it is free through my SC Bar membership.
When I went to work at the Anderson County Solicitor’s Office in 1991, I owned a computer, but it was very slow and was primarily a glorified word processor. By 1994, when I opened M. J. Goodwin, Attorney at Law, LLC, the internet was becoming more common place and I opened my first AOL account. Now computers are an integral part of my daily practice. In fact, if they go down, we are in trouble! We have multiple daily back ups and consider ourselves “state of the art.”
So, what does all this have to do with my Legal Pad column? This e-history lesson does have a purpose. The legal establishment resists change. And hiring a lawyer can be expensive. But change, it is a-coming. In fact, it is here. To attempt to increase access to Family Court, our State Supreme Court developed a self-represented litigant package for uncontested divorces. More and more of those are being filed. However, many have problems and are not effective. One of my earlier Legal Pad columns was about the dangers and benefits of self-representation. There is now an in between solution. One no longer has to choose between representing one’s self with no legal assistance and paying thousands of dollars to hire an attorney. One can hire a virtual lawyer.
Virtual law offices, or VLOs, have been around for several years. But they are only now gaining more widespread attention. Like FaceBook, it is taking them time to get noticed and “go viral”, as the computer literate say.
A VLO works like this: the prospective client contacts the lawyer online and contracts with the lawyer for specific, unbundled legal services. For example, a client could contract with the lawyer for advice about filing a self-represented divorce and for assistance in drafting the documents. The client then files the documents himself and goes to the hearing on his own. The total cost for a virtual package is a fraction of the cost of hiring an attorney to do the work and go to court. With a VLO package, a client in a uncontested divorce case walks into the courtroom with all the necessary documents, including an expertly drafted Divorce Decree for the Judge to consider. Additionally, by using a VLO, the client can be more certain that his or her case is actually appropriate for self-representation in court.
VLOs are not limited to divorces. They are useful for simple wills, power of attorney documents, contracts and legal research issues, to name a few. Again, the documents are generated by a lawyer, with specific legal advice being provided. The client executes the documents on his own.
VLOs are not form generating websites like Legal Zoom ™. With form generators, there is no customized legal advice. In fact, there is no legal advice whatsoever. With a VLO, you are getting a lawyer. You are establishing a relationship with a trained legal professional to guide you through a legal process. Your information is submitted securely. Flexibility is greatly increased as you can contact your virtual lawyer 24/7 and your virtual lawyer can respond 24/7. Neither party is restricted to the normal 9am to 5pm relationship.
Attorneys practicing with a VLO must follow the same rules as a traditional brick and mortar law firm. Conflicts of interest must be checked. Professional responsibility rules apply. The only real difference in the VLO and the traditional attorney-client relationship is the face to face contact. If that element is important to you, then a VLO is probably not for you.
I have always believed in citizen access to court. But access to court is of little value without an experienced lawyer to help the citizen. The VLO allows that access for low to middle income people. It is my hope that it will help them navigate the waters of the legal system at a cost that they can afford.
So 2011 is the year of my grand experiment with a virtual law office. I believe this to be the first full service virtual law office in the Anderson area. If you think these services would be useful to you or someone you know, please visit my website at www.mjgoodwin.com I will continue to offer my traditional brick and mortar firm as well.