Two years ago, young Quebec business lawyer Louis-Thomas Deschênes was at a crossroads in his legal career.
Let go by a major law firm and hunkered down at home with his government-lawyer wife, who was on maternity leave after giving birth to the second of the couple’s three children — all of them still under the age of five today — he tried to figure out how he could reconcile his professional aspirations with a personal desire to spend ample quality time with his young family. “It seemed impossible,” recalled the 30-year-old, “because the practice of law is so demanding.”
By happenstance, Deschênes heard about another Quebec lawyer who was offering legal services (or at least legal documents, like wills) via the Internet. That notion, together with a half-dozen years of experience in practice and the results of a market study he carried out himself within the local business community convinced the computer-savvy Deschênes to become a pioneer in an emerging field on Quebec’s legal landscape. His study found most small- and medium-sized business owners and self-employed professionals were reluctant to use the courts to pursue small claims because they considered the services provided by traditional law offices too expensive.
In August 2007, Deschênes launched a “virtual law office,” really a web site (www.ltdavocat.com) based in a small office in the mostly unfinished basement of his family’s home in the town of Boischatel, just east of Quebec City. “It’s really more like a computer lab than an office,” Deschênes says about the room, which features a desk, computer, bookcase, filing cabinet, fax/printer — and the house’s breaker panel. “But it’s got everything I need.”
Deschênes is the first to admit the term “virtual law office” is something of a misnomer. “People would never hire a lawyer who wasn’t real or who they could only communicate with over the Internet,” he says. “Law is all about human relations [and] feelings and attitudes are a big part of the relations between lawyers and their clients. I really do exist and I provide services that are provided by lawyers working in traditional law office settings.”
The big difference, which Deschênes says lies at the heart of the concept, is that his practice is geared to visiting clients in their homes, businesses, or offices. “They’re welcome to come to my office to discuss their affairs. But most of the time I go to see them.” The result, he adds, is lower overhead for him, and both lower fees and improved access to justice for his clients.
So far, Deschênes says it’s paying big dividends. Thanks to his web site, word of mouth, and an ad in the town newsletter for $225 a year, his practice, by the end of last year, had grown to 30 clients from the four clients in his previous practice. “When I started, my goal was to get one new client a month,” says Deschênes. He targets niche clientele identified in his survey — self-employed plumbers and welders to small retail store owners — for whom he does mostly litigation on small claims cases ($70,000 and less) and other commercial law matters, like contract writing. “But I’ve already gotten twice that many.”
Still, Deschênes says there are pitfalls to starting and running a virtual law office. In a recent feasibility study he did for the Quebec Bar, he noted lawyers need to be creative, determined, and have the entrepreneurial skill to identify and develop clients. Working alone also has challenges, including having to figure out procedures in sometimes unfamiliar fields of law, and having to do research, writing, and billing alone. “It’s not for everyone,” he says. “And I don’t recommend it for lawyers with less than four years’ experience.”
For lawyers who have been in practice more than four years — and for those with young families who can’t follow the rhythm of big offices but who don’t have the time or money needed to open and run a small office — Deschênes calls the virtual office “ideal.” That’s why he is confident, too, that the concept will become more popular. “It’s just a matter of time,” he says.
Geneviève Lefebvre agrees. A lawyer and the assistant director of professional inspection with the Quebec Bar, she says the bar gets regular requests from, and helps, lawyers — particularly ones in their 20s and 30s — for information and guidance on how to strike out on their own. The bar offers free consultation on business plans and free three-hour visits by seasoned lawyers to start up law practices. While there are “only a handful” of virtual law offices currently operating in la belle province, “we get the feeling there is much wider interest” in a concept she calls “the emergence of a new way or model of doing business.”
Though the bar is supportive, she says it is unbending on the need for all lawyers to follow professional codes of conduct. For example, they must ensure the confidentiality of client information, potentially problematic when the transmission of documents or information is over the Internet. And lawyers must have a physical address where clients can meet them if needed. “We make no concessions on that rule,” says Lefebvre. “We can live with virtual law offices. But we don’t want virtual lawyers.”
That’s never likely to happen anyway, says Marc Gélinas, the Quebec lawyer and businessman who inspired Deschênes and others like him. In 1997, he started Canada’s first law portal, the Quebec Law Network (www.avocats.qc.ca) which gives the public, companies, and organizations access to Quebec’s legal system thanks to user-friendly texts written by lawyers, professors, judges, and other legal professionals. Three years later he started the country’s first virtual law firm (selling various interactive documents online, including wills and pardons, and refers requests for legal services to law firms for a fee). Gélinas says “a true virtual lawyer would be either a Max Headroom-like character or somebody who works online and answers e-mails for a fee.” Lawyers such as Deschênes, he adds, “are really like notaries who work from home and have small practices.”
Dan Pinnington, the director of PracticePRO with Ontario-based insurer LawPRO, says there are no figures on how many “virtual” law practices there are in Ontario but thinks the numbers are growing. “The web has become ingrained in our daily lives [and] it’s providing opportunities now for lawyers to offer their services.” Pinnington says those starting virtual law practices are mostly young lawyers in areas of practice amenable to working at home, like IP (which requires lots of reading and involves clients that are usually computer savvy anyway) and family law, which can often involve sit-downs with clients in their homes.
While new mobility rules make it quite easy to temporarily work in other provinces (see page 18), there are parameters on what can and can’t be done over borders, even via the Internet. He adds, too, there are concerns over whether virtual offices can meet formal procedures like conflict checks, client ID rules, and ensuring files are safe (and not on the family computer kids can access).