Like thousands of young lawyers in the city, Sebastian Ko uses online tools to do his job - drafting and sharing legal documents on mobile devices, preparing due diligence checks on cloud-computing platforms, and working overtime from home on desktops to meet deadlines. But under the current rules, young solicitors such as Ko cannot embrace the technology in the same way as their American and English counterparts, who established virtual law offices more than a decade ago. Such cloud-based offices would be especially useful for lawyers in Hong Kong, Ko said, given the skyrocketing rents. However, the city's solicitors - numbering about 9,000 - must abide by strict confidentiality requirements under Law Society rules. In practice, that means they can work only from a fixed office, even though the technology is there to allow them to work flexibly from home or elsewhere. "Many lawyers I know believe that greater reliance on technology in legal practice could help make lawyers and clients more efficient, and could benefit clients' access to legal services," said Ko, an associate at law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. It appears the Law Society has taken note. Its president, Stephen Hung Wan-shun, recently announced a new working group would look into the idea of allowing virtual practices. "Law firms across the globe are confronted with similar cost issues. In response, new business models have evolved in other jurisdictions to explore opportunities to service clients' legal needs through virtual instead of bricks-and-mortar offices," Hung wrote in last month's issue of the society's official journal, Hong Kong Lawyer . Citing a study by the society, Hung said law firms faced average rent rises of 247 per cent last year from 2004. The society "receives inquiries from time to time on whether it is permissible to conduct a legal practice from home or a business centre", Hung wrote. "The new generation of lawyers, as well as clients, who seem to have the internet hardwired in their DNA, appear keen to work online." The American Bar Association said about 5 per cent of US lawyers last year identified themselves as practising law virtually. Ko said greater adoption of so-called e-lawyering tools and virtual practices to make working schedules more flexible could draw more talent to the profession, particularly women, who often find it difficult to balance work and family life. He noted, however, that despite the many possibilities of virtual legal practice it would be unfeasible for most lawyers to abandon the office entirely. Telecommuting lawyers could, instead, share office space and conferencing facilities, he said. But Hung said the issue of how to revise the rules to cope with the virtual law office trend was still unresolved. Traditionally, lawyers are bound by confidentiality rules. Running a virtual office from home would mean addressing issues such as who else shared that space, whether the office, telephone and fax machine was used only by the lawyer, and how documents would be stored. There could also be rules prohibiting people from working in residential buildings, Hung said. Ko said the jurisdictional restriction of practice could also be tricky, as lawyers may receive overseas queries about local laws. But he believed the virtual law office would appeal to clients. "Through leveraging technology, law firms are able to create greater cost controls for clients and support entrepreneurial opportunities for lawyers," he said. Law firms may even be able to outsource more tasks - beyond simple document examination - to cheaper external service providers down the road, Ko added.