Local law firm goes 'virtual'
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If you hire the Delta Law Group to handle your divorce or draw up a will, your first meeting will likely be a face-to-face session during which one of the partners videotapes an in-depth interview with you.
After that, don't expect to see him again for a very long time.
Not that the lawyer plans to skip town. But Delta is one of a small, but emerging group of "virtual" law firms that wants to conduct most of its business on-line. That means the attorney you met in person will post your video and all future case proceedings to the firm's interactive Web site, www.makinglaweasy.com. You'll receive a password to access the site where you can view documents, receive court notices, pose questions and communicate with your attorney as often or as little as you like.
Like other virtual firms, Delta, based in Monroeville, markets itself as a low-cost, no-frills alternative to traditional law firms because it eliminates much of the overhead and paperwork that contribute to high hourly rates.
"Law has become unaffordable for the middle class," said Karl Schieneman, 42, co-founder of Delta and the founder of several other legal businesses in Pittsburgh including Legal Network, a staffing agency that he sold in 2004.
For his virtual law firm, Mr. Schieneman teamed with Brian Walters, 43, a former engineer for Westinghouse Electric Corp. and an attorney who maintained a solo practice in Pittsburgh for 11 years.
"The whole [legal] system was inefficient compared with engineering," Mr. Walters said. "The prices kept going up and the clients were getting cranky."
So when Mr. Schieneman, whom he met at a legal conference at Seven Springs Mountain Resort almost a decade ago, broached the idea in 2006 of creating a firm that would conduct most of its business electronically, Mr. Walters was eager to collaborate.
After meeting for months at The Rivers Club, Downtown, to hash out their business plan, the partners pooled $150,000 of their own money to design the customized software system that manages their clients' cases. They opened the firm in August, launched the Web site in October and have handled about 50 cases to date, Mr. Schieneman said.
Virtual firms are likely to boom as people who haven't yet reached middle age demand on-line legal services, said Richard Granat, a lawyer who founded a virtual law firm in Maryland and who serves as co-chair of the American Bar Association's elawyering task force.
"I think the number of [virtual] firms will increase when the Facebook and My Space generation grows older and has legal problems. They do their banking, their brokerage accounts and buy their media on-line. When they get to their late 20s and 30s and have to deal with lawyers for a divorce or a will, they won't want to go to an office, give up their work day and have a will produced the old way. They want to communicate and accomplish tasks over the Internet ... at a cheaper cost."
The virtual law firm concept works best for standard legal services such as wills, divorce, immigration documents and consumer law, Mr. Granat said.
"We're not talking about large, complex business problems" or criminal matters that require numerous court appearances, he said.
At Delta, both partners are lawyers but they mainly focus on the administrative operations of the business rather than the actual legal proceedings. For that, they rely on a network of about 20 lawyers throughout the Pittsburgh region, most of whom are specialists and solo practitioners.
"We give them neat tools and technology and allow them to focus in the areas they really want to focus in," said Mr. Schieneman. "We are the initial triage attorneys then we turn to a specialist."
Delta charges a flat rate of $150 for an initial client meeting and video, a price Mr. Schieneman describes as "very affordable when you look around the [Pittsburgh] legal community with rates of $200 to $300 per hour."
Other rates are $600 for a living will, power of attorney or simple will; $1,200 to $1,500 to handle a DUI charge; and $1,600 for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The firm's Web site lists a range of practice areas from child support claims to immigration issues and the partners say their network of lawyers allows them to tap experts in areas that may not appear on the site.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all approach," said Mr. Schieneman. "That's what's been fun: figuring out how we can make this more efficient. Few people have tried that because they're too busy trying to make a living."
Larry Bodine, a Chicago- and Tucson-based business development consultant who specializes in law firms, said virtual firms are well-suited to clients who "want specialists without paying mega-firm prices."
For example, XDL Group, a virtual firm founded by a Richmond, Va., attorney, includes nine lawyers in locations throughout the U.S. who specialize in intellectual property litigation including patents, copyrights and trade secrets.
"It's designed to be an on-line fishing net for people looking for lawyers in smaller firms with smaller fees and lower overhead but with 20 or 30 years of litigation experience," said Mr. Bodine. "It's the kind of thing for which you would pay $900 an hour in New York City."
He expects more consumers will seek out virtual firms "so they don't have to be charged for the office, the utilities, the phone."
Lawyers, particularly entrepreneurial types who don't need the structure of a big firm, will also capitalize on technology to handle increasing amounts of work electronically, he said.
"I'm convinced that with a recession starting, firms will be looking for ways to cut costs. You need one good suit and an airline ticket and you're in business."
And what about potential clients who don't have a computer or aren't comfortable conducting their affairs in cyberspace?
Delta Law will handle those, too, "just like a typical law firm with a live lawyer," according to its Web site.
First Published January 18, 2008 12:00 am