The oncoming of the internet and technological advancements have opened doors for various new professions and for practicing the traditional professions in a new manner and the legal profession is no exception to this. Running a law firm was normally thought to involve the establishment of physical offices, with clients consulting their lawyers etc. A major reason for this lies in the fact that a client should have faith in the lawyer representing it, which is usually established through physical meetings and discussions.
In recent times, several practitioners have made a departure from this traditional practice and are swiftly moving towards establishing a Virtual Legal Office (VLO). A VLO, as the name suggests is a legal office available online through which the lawyers provide consultancy to their clients via e-mails, online meetings or sometimes physical meetings etc. The advantages of a VLO is quite obvious –no expenses for purchasing an office, or setting up charges, less maintenance expenses and easy accessibility. While it may seem alluring to set up a VLO there are some factors which need to be considered for instance, a lawyer must have the license to practice in the jurisdiction where she is giving advice or drafting any document for a client. Any advice given by a lawyer not having the requisite license to practice in the jurisdiction may amount to misdemeanor therefore, due caution must be observed.
Furthermore, at the time of giving any legal opinion on any virtual portal or to a general query e-mail, it is necessary that the lawyer clearly establishes whether or not her opinion creates an Attorney-Client relationship. In the event that an opinion is given based on general facts, a disclaimer must be put forth stating that such opinion will not create any relationship between the discloser and recipient of the information. The establishment of an Attorney-Client relationship leads to creation of an obligation on the Attorney to, at all-time preserve such information as confidential. This obligation continues even after the relationship comes to an end since, the sensitive information was obtained by the Attorney in confidence from the client.
Another issue often raised about the practicality of establishing a VLO is regarding the maintenance of confidentiality particularly, when most of the transactions, discussions will be done online. It is advisable that a VLO must adopt necessary measures to prevent any leak of sensitive information obtained in the course of practice; this includes sufficient encryption of mails and saving of the documents on reliable cloud servers. In the event that a third party hacks/attempts to hack into the e-mail correspondences, cloud of the VLO, etc., it will be an illegal activity and the VLO cannot be held liable for the same. It is however, necessary to note that if any sensitive information is to be communicated to the client by the VLO, a prior consent must be obtained from the client if such information is to be sent online; otherwise, such information should ideally be given in person.
Interestingly, in the United States of America the establishment of VLOs is on the rise, primarily because of the facts that (1) there aren't enough positions in law firms in comparison to the law graduates; and (2) a VLO is usually more efficient than the usual law firms because queries are answered immediately online. In India, so far VLOs have not been formally established, there are portals through which people raise legal queries and law practitioners respond in a general manner, such that no Attorney-Client relationship is created; there also exist websites where legal knowledge is imparted freely or on payment of certain fees. Also, unlike the United States of America, in India a Certificate of Practice issued by the Bar Council of India allows an Indian lawyer to practice in any part of the country. The only restriction imposed on an Indian lawyer operating a VLO will have to be careful while advising a foreign client.
Advertisement of VLO may also raise some concerns in India; the Bar Council of India, in accordance with the judgment of V.B. Shukla v Union of India amended clause 36, Section V of the BCI Rules to allow the lawyers to advertise themselves provided, only the following information is provided in the advertisements:
1) Name of the firm;
2) Contact Information of the firm;
3) Bar council enrollment details;
4) Professional and Academic qualifications; and
5) Areas of practice.
It will be interesting to see the emergence of VLOs in India, it might enable individuals to gain faster and possibly cheaper access to legal practitioners and may even be encouraged to aid people in resolving legal queries at the earliest.
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