Over half my clients find and hire me through the Internet. We build good working relationships together, often without ever meeting each other, or only meeting when a case is ready to go to a court hearing.
Because lawyers are at the end of the day just bundles of words, spoken or written, we're a profession ideally suited to the Internet. We don't even need to rely on high bandwidth video streams (though they can be helpful), and instead can just use VOIP voice communications, email, file upload servers and client portals to deliver the services our clients need.
Although courtrooms and tribunal hearing rooms in Canada remain relatively in-person fora, I still find that Barristers (lawyers who advocate for clients before a court or tribunal) can very effectively represent clients utilizing the Internet since up to 90 percent of courtroom advocacy is really advance fact finding, case analysis, research, written submission preparation, pleadings and affidavit drafting, client communication, opposing counsel negotiation, and court pre-trial case management. Thus when I show up for a hearing anywhere in Canada, I'm superbly prepared because of that instantaneous client and court relationship and knowledge base that was built during the many months prior to the hearing.
It's true that for Barristers hired through the Internet you might be looking at paying for some long distance travel time and costs, but those costs will almost always be very modest compared to the overall price tag of your case, you may be able to retain a Barrister through the Internet with much more specialized expertise than is available with local counsel, and even the rate charged by the Barrister hired through the Internet may be less than for local counsel due perhaps to lower overhead costs. So don't think you'll pay more by hiring someone from a great distance. You just need to make sure that person can legally practice law where you are located, and is going to bring to the table the levels of skills and commitment that you require for your case.
Even though I refer to myself as a "Barrister," a lot of my best work may be focused on preventing clients' cases from going to court. I do this through negotiations with government or opposing parties such as the Canada Revenue Agency (for tax clients), or the Attorney General (for criminal defence clients), or various federal or provincial government departments (for Aboriginal and environmental clients), or professional regulatory bodies (for professional discipline clients), or counsel representing opposing business or private parties (for commercial, civil and small claims litigation clients). That kind of work doesn't require any travel at all and is superbly suited to the Internet where strong, continuous relationships can be built. There is sometimes no substitute to a final face to face meeting to finally settle a matter, but the Internet avoids all those preliminary abortive meetings that can waste time and money.
Questions to Ask Yourself When Evaluating a Lawyer you Find on the Internet
Evaluating lawyers prior to making a buying decision is always tricky, as unlike a new car you can't read much in the way of online reviews (even if you find a couple, you might not want to trust them unless you finds a very large sample group like for hotels or restaurants on Tripadvisor), and you can't judge just by looking at the lawyer. But things you can ask yourself and test out are:
(1) what kind of detailed information does the lawyer provide on the Internet about his experience?
(2) what kind of free information does the lawyer offer the public on the Internet about the area of law I am concerned with, and is that information understandable?
(3) does it look like the lawyer is a good communicator from what he has written on the Internet (since law is mostly about clear communication)?
(4) how quickly does the lawyer respond to an initial inquiry made to him over the Internet?
(5) how quickly does the lawyer respond to follow up inquiries I might have?
(6) is the lawyer willing to have a brief without obligation telephone or Skype conversation with me so that I can better evaluate if we might be a good fit?
(7) is the lawyer willing to conduct a fixed-priced detailed consultation with me to provide me his opinion on the prospects of and proposed strategy for my case?
Managing Your Relationship with Your Lawyer Through the Internet
After you've made your lawyer buying decision, the Internet is likewise the ideal means for client-lawyer relationship management. The leading source of client complaints about lawyers (there are stats on this) is lack of communication. Meaning, the lawyer might be working hard on your case, but if he is ignoring your inquiries about case progress, you quite understandably aren't going to be happy. Leaving one telephone message after another without getting any information is completely unacceptable for a professional practice, but can happen if the lawyer is spending 8 hours a day in court, 5 hours a day preparing for court the next day, and a couple of extra hours a day managing his business.
With the Internet, you can pose client questions directly to the lawyer by email or through the firm's client portal, and the lawyer may be able to provide you an answer within minutes (rather than hours or days), sometimes while sitting in court when voice communications are impossible. The Internet also is a great enabler for clients providing their lawyers instantaneously with all relevant facts and documents in a case, without the risk of multiple time wasting and high cost meetings where the lawyer demands documents you didn't know you needed to bring, the lawyer winds up needing to keep original document you would prefer to hold onto, or the high volume of documents in the case can't be physically delivered to the lawyer in a timely fashion.
Speaking as Canada's former Director of E-Business Development, where I worked with the UN, OECD and APEC on such issues, I can say with some confidence that in the future all legal service delivery will have an Internet component. But I can't predict when that will happen. However, for those comfortable with being part of that legal service delivery resolution right now, hiring and managing a lawyer through the Internet offers many advantages of improved client communication, improved quality and specialization of service, and possibly even lower cost.