Virtual Law Firms: The Future of Legal Practice?
By Sabrina S. Siracusa
While the concept of a virtual law firm may sound unreal (or even fake, at first glance), a virtual law firm is just another way of describing two or more lawyers who work together and recognize the need to serve clients in an innovative way. The concept has been in use since 1996 by the first recorded virtual law firm of “Woolley & Co.,” established in England by Andrew Woolley.
Virtual law firms are formed and regulated in the same way as traditional law firms, but their lawyers are self-employed consultants instead of partners or employees. It’s a legal practice that does not have a traditional brick-and-mortar office, and instead, operates from the homes or satellite offices of its lawyers who deliver services to clients at a distance using technology to communicate. Lawyers engaged in this type of law practice are said to be “eLawyering.” Virtual law firms also have an accounting and administrative side of the practice.
In fact, if you are practicing law today, you may already have a virtual law firm to some degree due to the increased use of technology in the workplace. Many daily tasks that once required you to meet face-to-face with clients and fellow attorneys are no longer commonplace. With the introduction of SKYPE™, cloud sharing and countless other remote business tools, your law practice is no longer limited to the office space you occupy.
The Benefits of a Virtual Law Firm
With a shaky economy, clients have turned to self-help methods and have become increasingly sophisticated in their understanding of how the legal system works. Some lawyers and law firms have recognized these circumstances as opportunities, instead of roadblocks. Virtual law firms offer:
- A low overhead thanks to attorneys working from home or a low-cost remote office.
- The option to expand and reduce legal staff as needed.
Additionally, virtual law firm models create a lower barrier of entry for lawyers to get started, while reducing overhead because of the ability of the attorneys to work from home or a low-cost remote office. This is true for the solo lawyer as well as the multi-lawyer firm with various offices.
Cloud Sharing: The Technology Behind a Virtual Law Firm
One of the main reasons why virtual law firms work is new technology—specifically, cloud sharing. Cloud sharing is a kind of Internet-based computing that allows you to store, share and retrieve documents instantly. Files can be easily stored and shared by your legal staff no matter where they are located. Some attorneys brush off the use of this technology without truly understanding it, but cloud software is now commonly used by small and large businesses, and it’s not as tough or mysterious as it may seem.
According to Joshua Poje, director of the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center, cloud usage went steadily upwards among law firms, from 16 percent in 2011 to 31 percent in 2013. The leading cloud-based tools used were Dropbox (49 percent) and Google Docs (40 percent).
A major advantage of cloud sharing is the elimination of technologies requiring extensive server space, constant upgrades and IT staff maintenance. Cloud sharing lowers overhead and supports a paperless work environment which helps streamline client services. Cloud solutions also offer excellent, collaborative work environments for attorneys working from a virtual law firm. A document can be accessed in seconds through an online system versus digging through a physical file for minutes or even hours.
Early resistance to cloud sharing was due, in part, to security concerns among attorneys. But, platforms such as Clio, Rocket Matter and Total Attorneys allow lawyers to engage with their clients through secure online portals. By using this technology, entire law firms can operate through mobile devices. There are countless reviews and online forums about cloud-based platforms available for attorneys to help them evaluate which ones might be best-suited to their practice. Additionally, the International Legal Technical Standards Organization has developed a set of best practices for using cloud-based software and to keep those standards updated as the technology and security advances.
Launching a Virtual Law Firm
Clearly, there are many advantages to operating a virtual law firm. But, before deciding to one, there are important questions to consider:
- Will your clients care where you do your work?
- Do you prefer a receptionist sitting at the front desk (ideally smiling) or a virtual receptionist who can field calls just as easily with a warm and friendly tone?
- What is the tolerance of your team members regarding technology?
- Are there any geographic limitations?
- Where do you see your practice in 5 or 10 years?
Your answers may change over time, but it’s important to analyze them in order to set up your best system for a virtual law practice. Once you decide to set up a virtual practice, there are four to keep in mind:
1) Firm management solutions. Regardless of your firm’s size, a cloud-based practice management solution is necessary to effectively run a virtual firm.
2) Document management. To say that documents are an important part of any law practice is an understatement. Having them accessible from anywhere, anytime, in a paperless work environment is the crux of a virtual law firm.
3) Online delivery. A virtual law firm requires a secure client portal to interact and share privileged information. A platform such as DirectLaw allows a client (consumer) to explore and purchase documents through a law firm’s website and fill out tailored questionnaires online. This information is then populated automatically into documents, allowing the lawyer to review the documents and have follow-up conversations with the client before submitting documents.
4) Social engagement. Interaction in a collaborative environment is important in the legal profession, but it can feel somewhat limited in a virtual environment. This is where tools such as Yammer, an enterprise social network, can be used for event planning and other information sharing within the firm.
Although each of these platforms can be used individually within a virtual law firm, they all integrate with each other in sharing data and improving efficiency.
Virtual law firms may come to be accepted as a staple of the legal industry and a cost-effective means of streamlining services to clients. But whether they morph from trend to tradition will depend on the ability of attorneys—and their clients—to adapt to a virtual world without sacrificing quality. Technological advances may assure that “eLawyering” is here to stay, so long as attorneys don’t lower the bar to meet the bottom line.