Something we are hearing more and more about from lawyers is the idea of virtual offices. Why, collectively as attorneys, are we using virtual offices and what should we be looking out for? How does it affect our practice and our clients?
What is a virtual office?
A virtual office is different from the traditional, brick and mortar office space. Some firms may use a combination but typically you hear about smaller firms or solo practitioners having a virtual office. A virtual office means the attorney is working primarily through the internet and not in a stationary location. This attorney may work primarily from home or some other location. Typically, these attorneys have some sort of address they list as a mailing address but they do not work out of that location. Having a virtual office may be as simple as working from home or it may involve a significant amount of work through the internet or cloud to work with clients.
What are the benefits to attorneys for using a virtual office?
Virtual offices may be great for solo practitioners. As a solo practitioner myself, I know I am constantly in and out of the office between court, meeting with clients outside of a traditional office and meeting with children involved in custody and divorce cases. If I hD a brick and mortar office space, I would, due to the nature of my practice, very rarely be in the office on a regular basis. If clients were to simply stop by, there’s a good chance the door would be locked because I would be in court. Using a virtual office, my clients know up front that they cannot just stop by the office. However, they know that I am almost always available via phone and email.
Many virtual office arrangements allow for using office space as needed or for a certain number of hours per month. If you are just getting off the ground and have few clients, you may only need an office space to meet with clients for a few hours per month. You may have flexibility to pay by the hour for additional time should you need it as you grow your practice.
What are the pitfalls to attorneys for using a virtual office?
Pitfalls may be similar to benefits for attorneys. One of those potential benefits and pitfalls is shared staff. The benefit is that many attorneys, especially solo practitioners, do not have the workload to hire a full time assistant, receptionist, etc. Using a virtual office, the “office” you use may offer those services as part of your office agreement. The pitfall here is that you need to ensure this is approved by your state bar and that you are in compliance with ethics rules. What I mean by that is: Suppose known or unbeknownst to you, there is another attorney who uses the same shared staff; what happens when that attorney is on the other side of a case that you are handling? What consequences are there when the shared secretary is involved in both sides of the case, even if all she has done is make copies of documents for the case?
As an attorney, you may experience a pitfall when it comes down to client communication. It is important you ensure your client knows that any place you meet with them is not your full time office. First, this is probably required by your state bar in terms of being transparent with your clients and potential clients. Second, if you are not regularly at a particular office location, you want to ensure your client does not show up at that space looking for you or looking to drop a document or check off for you.
What are the benefits for your clients?
The biggest benefit for your client is that it keeps overhead costs down which should translate into lower fees charged by the attorney. That benefit is pretty straightforward; lower fees tend to make clients happier (though not as much as great results).
Another benefit to clients is flexibility in scheduling. If you are using a virtual office, you are likely going to be more flexible to meet with clients at a location more convenient for them. As a part of a virtual office agreement, you may be able to use multiple locations and can move from location to location as it is more convenient for particular clients.
Is a virtual office right for you?
Taking all of the above information, in addition to your own dutiful research, you should weigh the pros and cons before deciding whether to use a virtual office. In addition to that, you need to ensure that you are allowed to use a virtual office (check your state bar rules, specifically if you have “waived” into a jurisdiction, rather than passing that jurisdiction’s bar exam).
If you choose to use a virtual office, make sure you fully understand your duties to your clients and ensure you have an arrangement that allows you to keep confidential information confidential and provide all required information regarding your office arrangement to your clients. As always, if after research and consideration you still are not sure if it is right for you, reach out to more experienced attorneys and attorneys who use a virtual office for advice and information on their personal experiences.