By their very nature, bar-tenders represent entrenched interest and they fight change and use of new technologies that often times dramatically help those seeking legal services.
I know older attorneys in Texas that still live in the fax age, do not wish to participate in the Internet, and think every lawyer that does is unethical. They have reached a time and place in their lives when they are content in letting the world pass them by. Remember, lawyers and law firms helped protest the introduction of the typewriter for goodness sake. What must those lawyers who made their living riding the circuit for cases and appointments have thought of the telegraph? We live today with a so-called precedent that corporations are people not because of anything the Supreme Court wrote, but because the publishing and delivering of Supreme Court decisions at that time was such that lawyers and other judges had to rely on the subjective notes of others. That is right, the headnote writer created precedent, which the Supreme Court did not, and which technology would have prevented.
I remember too well, for example, that in 1987 a Texas state district court judge issued a capias for my arrest because, as a result of a terrible ice storm in another part of the state, I could not get to court and bothered to fax a motion for a continuance stating this fact. The judge, who had never heard of a fax machine, and could not fathom how words could be transmitted over phone lines, believed that if I could find some way to get a motion to the court, then I should have been able to find a way to get my person to court instead.
We as lawyers not only fight progress, we offensively attack it. If we cannot prohibit it, we try to regulate and litigate it out of existence. And, lawyers are the worst when it comes to their own. They use the grievance process, and the fear of losing one's law licence, to fight their losing wars. I say losing because, as history demonstrates in the long run, technology loses to no one.
In a case brought by the Virginia State Bar, a three-judge panel, ruled on the Internet marketing of a virtual law office in Virginia State Bar v. Atchuthan Sriskandarajah, in which the court reprimanded the lawyer behind the virtual law office of srislawyer.com for what it considered misleading marketing.
Read it and judge for yourself.
Some well regarded lawyers, writers and bloggers, such as Robert Ambrogi and his LawSites blog, seem to find some comfort in the Virginia court's decision. Although well meaning, I do not.
First, let me say that I do not know anything about the SRIS Law Group, its owner or the lawyers that work with it. I have not used their legal services. I am not paid by or associated with the firm. I am not aware of the quality of the firm's legal work. This, however, does not appear to be an issue or else the court would have commented on the quality of the firm's services to its clients. It did not.
Second, I have got to say that I believe in the rule of law, and I was not the trier of fact. I was not in the court, did not see or hear what the court saw or heard, or the implications the court detected. For all I know, the court observed a grave concern it felt needed to be addressed. This said, no such concerns were illustrated in the court's written decision.
The court seemed to not have any reflective qualities of how a virtual law office might differ from any other law practice. It stated that it was dealing with "issues of first impression given the burgeoning use of the internet for advertising and marketing and to create virtual law offices." Yet, none of the court's complaints are any different than what a lot of lawyers do currently without using the term "virtual" to describe their practices. In short, the court, in taking the opportunity to discipline the "virtual" practice of law, in fact is rebuking the way many traditional lawyers actually practice law today regardless of the Internet.
For all of the concern of the Virginia Bar and its court, one has to ask who lodged this complaint?
One can assume the complaint was not lodged by any consumer of the law firm's services claiming it was mislead, or the court would have concentrated on that issue. As with most complaints of this sort, it was likely lodged by SRIS' colleagues who feel threatened by the web in that they have not learned to utilize well. It can be assumed that this complaint derived from fearful lawyers who are wrongly concerned they will be LegalZoomed out of business. So, they anonymously complain, and the Virginia Bar takes up the action as its own to secure this anonymity. If this is how this complaint came about, it is disgraceful. If so, it represents the worst of the practice of law.
Obviously concerned with Virginia's sovereignty, the court was interested with the fact that SRIS referred to itself as a "national law firm" with offices in several states and an office in India, when the law firm was controlled by one lawyer in Virginia. I think, however, so what? An office in India makes it an international law firm, but I do not believe that was the misrepresentation expressed by the bar-tenders. If I accept cases from across the country, or if I only desire to seek cases from across the country, I can represent myself as a "national law firm". I do not believe you misrepresent a national intent just because you have yet to represent people in all 50 states and territories of the United States.
The Virgina Bar and court seemed to have a problem with a lawyer holding himself out as a law firm of multiple lawyers when most lawyers associated with the firm are independent contractors and not employees. It can be assumed that the Virginia court, for example, believes that your firm does not contain associates if the lawyers are not employees or have an ownership interest in the law firm, regardless if the lawyers are regularly associated with the law firm. This is, by the way, a condition under which most lawyers practice together in this country, and I would assume Virginia. Most "law firms" are loose configuration of lawyers affiliated in some way to serve a client base. If a virtual law firm violates the rules in operating in this fashion, them most every lawyer and law firm does the same. What, for example, about those situations wherein a law firm is an association of professional corporations or other such entities, in which the lawyer is not directly employed?
The court appeared to be hypersensitive to the claim that attorneys associated with the law firm "primarily practice in only one area of law". As Shakespeare would have said, "[t]was a clever quibble" to argue one attorney listed on the website as accepting family law cases falls outside of the website's other claim that the firm's lawyers, "don't attempt to dabble in unrelated areas of law". Otherwise, God help the non-virtual lawyer who in the phone book screams they represent those injured in the headline, but in the laundry list of cases accepted veers a little outside of the statement. The Virgina court seems to state that a lawyer that lists a series of specific cases it will accept, cannot then generalize as to the a practice area it promotes. In other words, if a lawyer lists a series of niche area in which it practices, it cannot then list the larger practice area in which most of those niche cases relate. If I state that I am a "bankruptcy lawyer", I had better then not list consumer law issues and foreclosure related defenses in the laundry list of bankruptcy-like situations I might accept. To the Virgina Bar and its court one contradicts the other leading to potential sanctions, reprimands, and possibly disbarment.
Lastly, the Virginia Bar and court seem to contend that executive suites and other physical offices in which a lawyer has made arrangements to meet clients and pay rent are not law offices for purposes of publicizing because these types of offices "do not provide space exclusive to Respondent's firm." This is likely to be a shock to non-virtual law firm, and home office lawyers, that arrange for space to meet with their clients in this fashion.
As stated by the writer Walter Kirn, "Everyone loves a witch hunt as long as it's someone else's witch being hunted."
Nothing in this decision indicates any sort of lapse in marketing that deserves this treatment by the Virginia Bar and its court. It would appear that the decision is little more than a witch hunt by traditional lawyers against those that wish to use the Internet to its fullest in recruiting and representing clients. To the degree that some lawyers find this an enjoyable decision, it is because they love the witch that the Bar and its court is hunting, and they will continue to enjoy the decision until they realize that it is actually their witch that is being excoriated.
To me, in reading this decision, I think it represents a denial of modern reality akin to the attempt to ban the typewriter from the practice of law.