What is a Virtual Counsel? (1/3)

We live in a world that is increasingly moving to virtual services, i.e., services offered remotely by expert or skilled providers that can save clients money by removing the need for a part- or full-time staff-person and all the overhead that brings. Organizations can now engage the services of a virtual counsel to fulfill key roles providing legal expertise.

Surprisingly, there are no modern day dictionaries that define the term “virtual counsel”.  In broad terms, virtual counsel usually refers to an external lawyer that works remotely to deliver frontline legal services to organizations in the same manner as a full time in-house counsel but on a casual or part-time basis.  Clients get the benefit of having a knowledgeable “in-house” lawyer on retainer without having to carry the overhead associated with office space and working tools and without having to make them an employee.

Virtual counsel normally takes one of two forms:

There’s the virtual general counsel (“VGC”) which normally comes in the form of a cost-effective seasoned business lawyer who can independently handle almost all of the organization’s legal requirements. A VGC acts as a frontline lawyer to the business on all but the most complex or specialized legal matters.

Then there’s the contracted virtual counsel, a business lawyer kept on retainer as swing capacity for an existing in-house department. Virtual counsel in this category are kept on reserve and called upon to work on files when the in-house team doesn’t have sufficient capacity to respond to internal clients.

The value of retaining virtual counsel

Hands down, when a full time in-house counsel can’t be justified due to cost or insufficient needs for legal services, a virtual in-house counsel is the next best option. A virtual counsel has the potential to offer greater value than traditional external counsel regardless of how much the organization spends on legal expenses.

That said, if a client organization retains virtual counsel in the same way it retains external counsel then that virtual counsel’s value is limited to providing arm’s length legal services at a lower cost. That’s a good start but by working with virtual counsel the same way it works with other external counsel the client has failed to unlock the true value.

The true strength of engaging virtual counsel is in bringing them into the organization to get to know management, occasionally work on site, and get to know the organization. The more integrated they are, the more they will learn about the organization, and that will lead to greater potential for the value of their services. By contrast, external counsel typically work in a silo on a specific task.

To unlock the potential value of a virtual counsel, the organization should:

  1. Identify the benefits the organization seeks to obtain from virtual counsel (and there are many that go far beyond lower fees);
  2. Take the time to find the right virtual counsel; and
  3. Structure an appropriate services contract.

If this is the organization’s first integrated lawyer, a VGC, then a senior-level officer should be assigned the role of championing the introduction this legal resource into the business. Without this, the move to a virtual counsel model may fail as the business will end up falling into old habits of treating the lawyer like any other external lawyer.

In my next posts I’m going to expand on how to go about each of these steps to finding the right virtual counsel for your organization. Then I’ll provide you with a starting list of questions that need to be answered at the contract stage to ensure expectations are clear on both sides.

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This post originally appeared on the RIZEN Business Lawyers Alliance blog.