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February 6, 2004

Can We Talk About “Virtual” English?

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 4:57 pm

phone ringing . .

Appearances to the contrary, I hate being a Name Nag or Word Whiner.  But, terminology keeps many lawyers from seriously considering the use of important new technology that will benefit consumers.  So, I’m going to force myself yet again to nudge all you creaters and “early adopters” of technology to choose nomenclature that is inclusive and understandable to Jill and Jack Lawyer on Main Street (rather than weird, incomprehensible or repulsive).  Today’s targets, the terms:

      • virtual
      • virtual law firm/office
      • disruptive

They may be passive-aggressive rather than violent, but most Lawyers are Luddites, loathe to adopt new technology.  I’m pretty certain that the three terms chosen for today’s lesson will not sell the digital, high-tech, well-networked era of lawyering to the demographic groups that make up the great mass of attorneys.  Sure, I’m no marketing whiz (which may be a plus), but I think my antennae are quite good at picking up communication breakdowns or static. 

My credentials as translator between the high- and low-tech sectors of the Bar?   I’ve practiced in a big fancy city with high-powered lawyers, and in a small, poor one alongside the non-Ivy section; I’m over fifty; I learned to”reframe issues” for better communication between mediation clients; and I’ve been an ESL tutor, seeing first hand the difficulties that neologisms, jargon and idioms pose for linguistic outsiders. 

mouse lawyer small . .

Virtual“:  “Digital” and “computer-assisted” would have been difficult enough nomenclature to popularize with lawyers, but why the heck do we use (and keep changing the meaning of) “virtual” when pitching new technology?   Most lawyers remember the definition of “virtual” from their childhood: “existing in the mind or imagination” or “in essence”.  If they’ve run across it fairly recently, it involves a computerized game environment their sons are dying to experience.  These days, the word keeps being applied to more and more computer-related situations, as is explained in a Usage Note from The American Heritage Dictionary: 

“When virtual was first introduced in the computational sense, it applied to things simulated by the computer, like virtual memory—that is, memory that is not actually built into the processor. Over time, though, the adjective has been applied to things that really exist and are created or carried on by means of computers. . . Virtual tends to be used in reference to things that mimic their “real” equivalents. ”     [and see this computer industry glossary entry]


mouse lawyer small flip  Just what “virtual” means or connotes to Main Streeters when discussing the practice of law is any one’s guess.  But, that’s the problem: we and they have to guess.  I’m guessing, it’s not a meaning that opens minds and checkbooks.


Virtual Law Firm/Office” is even worse.  It has all the problems of the word “virtual,” plus creating great ambiguity about what a “law firm” is.  I recently praised the concepts in Dennis Kennedy‘s article  “A Vision for Virtual Law Firms — Questions You Should Be Asking” (Law Practice Today, Jan. 2004).  But, let’s be frank: Dennis is not talking about a “law firm” as we know it.  In fact, Dennis says

“To me, virtual law firm simply means an affiliated group of lawyers connected by technology rather than co-existing in common physical locations.” 

Dennis seems to be talking about creating and maintaining a network of lawyers that is able to communicate and share information readily through computer technology, without a pooled profit-center.   That’s not a “law firm” — an entity that exists as a corporation or partnership, and that shares profit and losses.


It’s not even a “law office” (nor a shared-suite arrangement).   We’re still at a stage where only a minority of the general public might understand “virtual office” as meaning

“An office that is not a real office environment, such as telecommuters, people working out of the normal office and people working in home offices, presenting an image that is different.”  

Stretching that terminology to mean loosely affiliated people who are part of a professional referral network, and whose computers can talk to each other when necessary, is asking for confusion — which means it turns off much of the target audience.

“bow tie”  “Disruptive Technology”:   Although I hold Jerry Lawson in great esteem, I think this phrase is also a turn-off for the average lawyer.  Weblogs and other techologies may meet the criteria for “disruptive technology” set out by Clayton Christiansen in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma (HBS Press, 1997).  But, the phrase means nothing to the hordes of lawyers unfamiliar with management theory and corporate strategy.  Forget necktie analogies, most lawyers still see bowties as disruptive.  If your headlines tout a “disruptive technology,” they’ll turn to another page.   Instead, pique their interest with an idea that will help shake up the competition — that’s profit-generating, efficiency-enhancing, a proven client magnate..  

Razzle-dazzle may work in Silicon Valley and Wall Street.  Plain English is virtually always the most effective form of advocacy on Main Street — including when making a sale.

Afterthought (02-07-04):  Yesterday, I forgot to mention the definition of a “virtual law firm” that Jerry Lawson of elawyerBlog recently attributed to Joe Kashi:

” Kashi suggests that it is a law firm that:

  • Has a stable core group of attorneys;
  • Has established collaborative relationships with other, specialized law firms that possess expertise that’s occasionally needed;
  • Is glued together with appropriate computer and telecommunications technology; and,
  • Expands and reduces personnel as needed.

“Sounds like a pretty good working definition.”

Constructing and maintaining such an entity seems like a great way to take advantage of new technologies, bringing efficiencies and synergy that will benefit lawyers and clients.  But, as I argue above, it’s not a law firm, and calling it “virtual” is more confusing than explanatory for the non-initiated.   It’s a high-tech (“digital”) lawyer network. 

Why complicate things by using confusing, definition-bending nomenclature?   When you ask Average Lawyer “Is she in your law firm?”, you’re asking a very different question than “Is she part of your lawyer referral network?”    I don’t want to have to overhear this conversation:

“Well, she’s not in my firm-firm, but she is in my virtual firm.”  “But, didn’t she used to be in your firm-firm?”  “Yes, we all liked her at our firm(-firm), and when she left to open her own firm-firm (but stay in our office-office suite), we hoped she’d join our virtual firm.” 

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