Local law firm among pioneers offering their services exclusively online

Ernst & Riley is a new kind of practice

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John Riley and George Ernst graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 2008 and 2007, respectively, just as the economic recession was taking hold.

"There were hiring freezes across the board," Mr. Ernst recalls of the job climate in late 2008 when he returned to Pittsburgh, having completed an international law program in Germany.

With his own expertise in European law and Mr. Riley's strong focus and experience in east Asian law -- he has studied, taught and worked in South Korea -- the law school friends opted in 2009 to launch their own venture: a firm that specializes in international and immigration issues.

Besides their focus on visas, green cards and other matters related to work and citizenship, the partners, both 30, hope to attract clients because of the way they conduct business -- almost exclusively online.

Ernst & Riley (eandrlaw.com) bills itself as a virtual law firm that hopes to reach a growing number of people seeking legal services through the Internet. The firm maintains an office in Monroeville, but handles the bulk of its work on a Web portal that allows clients to access information and ongoing updates on their cases.

Ernst & Riley and other firms in the virtual niche say they can provide competitive services at lower cost because they don't have much overhead. "We have conference call capabilities, online videos ... and from the administrative aspect, more and more is able to be done in a virtual sense," said Mr. Ernst.

Stephanie Kimbro, a North Carolina attorney who operates a virtual firm and writes a blog about virtual law, said the economic downturn and cutbacks at traditional law firms resulted in an uptick of virtual firms being launched.

"There are a lot more solo [practitioners] who are fresh out of law school, pass the bar and can't find a job," she said. "So they're opening virtual offices for flexibility."

She estimates that 200 to 300 virtual firms operate in the United States.

Ms. Kimbro launched hers in 2006 to target lower- and middle-income clients in North Carolina who want basic legal services for estate planning and small business issues such as contracts, partnership and shareholder agreements.

She described her business model as delivering limited, "unbundled" services.

In many cases, she prepares and reviews documents and then instructs her clients to file them in court. "The client does the majority of the footwork and you charge them less."

Virtual firms typically charge fixed fees for services and list them on their websites.

Ms. Kimbro, for instance, charges $150 for a last will and testament, $50 for a living will and $300 to process a name change.

Another Monroeville-based virtual firm, Delta Law Group, founded in 2008, charges an average $150 per hour for services ranging from divorce and other family law issues to bankruptcies, criminal defense and small-business startup, real estate and tax matters. The firm's standard retainer fee is $1,500.

"Our focus is middle-class America's general legal problems," said Brian Walters, a founder of the firm who has one administrative staff employee and a network of 15 contract attorneys who handle cases for Delta.

Like Ernst & Riley, Delta conducts client business through a virtual portal. Mr. Walters' office, he said, is paperless.

"We have no file cabinets; we do everything online."

His clients "definitely appreciate the 24/7 contact. We have an organized virtual office where they access all their stuff in one location. There are no secret surprises for the client. They get the information as soon as we do."

Philip Bender operates a virtual law office based in Pittsburgh for Portland, Ore.-based Bateman Seidel Miner Blomgren Chellis & Gram. But he had established clients, mainly in the environmental sector, when he launched it in November.

"The model we are developing is to have a single brick-and-mortar office [in Portland] and within that to have a virtual firm that allows our environmental team to be anywhere and practice anywhere," he said.

Mr. Bender, 41, relocated from Portland initially to work for mega-firm K&L Gates in Pittsburgh because his wife's family is here. When Bateman Seidel, a 15-lawyer firm, approached him about joining, the virtual concept worked for both sides.

"Rather than have clients come to me or an office, I like to go to their offices, their plants and facilities," said Mr. Bender. "Being at a client's facility really matters in environmental law." He carries digital and electronic files with him on a laptop to client meetings and handles some court appearances by phone.

"It's a shift from being in a [traditional] office," he acknowledged. "You have to be proactive about getting out, seeing clients and friends in the legal community. There's an opportunity to be isolated ... But I have to say the dress code is more relaxed."

Ernst & Riley provides links on its website to government forms for visas and citizenship as well as links to updated news about the immigration process. It allows users to access information in different languages, including Spanish, Korean and Chinese. It provides consultation on immigration matters for individuals and businesses and also refers those who browse its site to other immigration lawyers. For business people outside the U.S., it offers assistance in investing in, or launching, companies in the U.S.

The staff includes the two partners and one intern. About 60 percent of revenues come from individual immigration issues, and 40 percent from corporate clients, said Mr. Ernst.

Mr. Riley has spent a majority of his time in South Korea recently, because, Mr. Ernst said, "The Koreans are very interested right now in U.S. investments."

Closer to home, he would like to tap business from current international students in the U.S. who have ideas for products or businesses and want to stay in the country.

Bateman Seidel's Mr. Bender expects more law firms to consider virtual operations as they look for ways to reduce overhead costs and manage rates.

"I see more small firms doing it; it's a great way to make the practice of law work more efficiently," he said.

Delta's Mr. Walters said that three years after launching, he is in the process of assessing the pros and cons of virtual law. His biggest challenge, he said, has been marketing, because, up until now, he has been focused on getting the concept and technology in place.

"I did personal marketing through appearances and traditional marketing in the Yellow Pages," he said. "But I will tell you that, to sustain a heavy flow of business, the Internet is increasingly becoming the most prominent marketing tool.

"It's a Wild West out there online for all lawyers. A lot of lawyers are struggling to market in this new environment."

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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