TECHREPORT 2018: Virtual Law Practice

Welcome to the Third Annual Chad’s Thoughts on the State of Virtual Law Practice in connection with the ABA Legal Technology Survey Report. In 2016, we looked at the data and talked about mobility and fun stuff like that. In 2017, we explored the question, “Isn’t a virtual law practice just how a modern law firm should be run?” So, for the 2018 Survey, I wanted to address the topic in a fresh way.

Let’s be super practical and go through ideas for starting a new virtual law practice in 2019. The role technology can have in helping carry out the mission, vision, and values for a firm—especially for virtual or distributed model law firms—is pretty fascinating. Regardless, at the end of the day, the issues are just like a “normal” or traditional firm. That is a core issue to remember: That while the term “virtual” sounds fancy, it still refers to a modern way to run a law practice.

There are some things that won’t be addressed this year that I think are still relevant. Read the overview of the 2018 Survey. There are interesting issues concerning age and gender that need to be considered. I discussed those factors a bit last year and not much has changed. You can draw your own conclusions from the data.

On to the show…

Where to Start?

Often when people ask how to create a virtual law practice, they think it sounds easy but haven’t thought through what that means. Like any business, you need to understand your client base. Who are you going to serve? What practice areas are in your sweet spot?

The new firm for this exercise serves two practice areas: family law and civil litigation. Naturally, the family law clients are individuals while the litigation clients are a mix of businesses and individuals. This matters because you need to think about what technology you are going use for communication purposes and what type of office space do you need, among other things.

Office Space

Lawyers have often commented that if they have consumer clients, such as those going through a divorce, a virtual environment is not ideal. They feel that a traditional office space is a must. This is not always true. There are several ways to meet with clients that do not involve talking at a Starbucks, potentially divulging client secrets. Flexible office space options, like Regus, are great options to meet with existing or potential clients on an as-needed basis. You can pay a lower amount per month than traditional office space, including by the hour. This allows for the use of office space to scale as you have more client meetings.

Regarding business clients, the same holds true. Plus, you can go to the business owner’s headquarters to meet with them. I used to do that often. First, it is convenient for the client, and, second, it is an opportunity to get new work from the client. You may show up for one matter, but because they see other work on their desk, they can hand it off to you.

Check out the data. The litigation and family law practice areas were significant contributors.

While the majority of lawyers report using traditional offices leased or owned exclusively by their law firms (60%), other options include a home office or traditional office space shared with one or more other businesses. There is also the option to take a hybrid approach—use of traditional office space and virtual space to expand into other geographic areas.

And what do you need to practice law out of these venues? How about a laptop, tablet, and/or smartphone? That, plus a solid cloud-based practice management software, will let you work anywhere. You can bounce around from office space to client sites to Regus and keep working.

The 2018 Survey shows that lawyers “regularly” use their mobile devices (e.g., laptop, smartphone, or tablet device) for law-related tasks in a variety of different locations anyway: the courtroom (16.5%), airport (22.5%), hotel (29%), and in transit (e.g., car, train, or airplane) (28%).

This may seem pretty basic, but the point is that really any lawyer can work from anywhere. It is not hard to be a mobile lawyer in 2019. You can be as mobile as you want to be.

Thinking About Intake

In starting a new virtual practice, one area that cannot be overlooked is the focus on intake and effectively getting new clients in the door. Now, most lawyers recognize the need to get new clients, but the sales process is not something that comes naturally. Leveraging an intake system is important for mobile lawyers and is in line with the general philosophy of running a modern firm. This is true regardless of whether you are representing consumer or business clients. Here are some ideas:

  • Get potential clients to a human. Whether you have a virtual receptionist service, like Ruby Receptionists or Smith, answer your phones or have an effective auto-attendant; new clients need to talk with someone as quickly as possible. This is true for virtual firms. You also need an intake specialist who is trained in sales and has the ability to sign up the potential client for a consultation as quickly as possible. You work remotely, which means your intake team can as well.
  • You have the technology in place to manage those services. You can give them access to your case management software if need be. You will statistically have a mobile phone glued to your hand and can keep tabs on new consultations.
  • Track the data related to intake. This is important. Effectively tweaking your intake so that it results in more clients can be a huge difference in meeting your revenue goals.

Using Technology to Cultivate a Team

This is the hardest part of running a firm, so it is good to save for last. Regardless of the type of firm (old/stodgy or shiny/virtual), the human component can be challenging.  This is especially true when growing a distributed team. If you are not in the office together all the time, maintaining positive relationships takes extra effort. This is not a bad thing, you just need to be aware of it.

The technology highlighted in the 2018 Survey can be helpful to manage these relationships. You have mobile devices and computers, so all you need is to regularly use collaboration tools, including video conferencing (Zoom, Hangouts, etc.), Slack, and project/case management tools that keep work flowing.

Now, the technology is helpful, but you need to be present with your team. Have regular one-on-ones with each team member (if feasible, depending on the size of the firm), organize the firm in teams so that they can work closely with one another regardless of their physical location, and regularly share Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) with members of the firm when you gather for weekly, monthly, and quarterly meetings via video. This last point is key (sorry for the pun).

Being a data-driven firm and sharing KPIs with your crew will keep everyone on the same page. If the firm is working toward the same goals, then they will be more invested in the organization. This is a process issue that is supported by technology. Both are critical. You can have all the fancy technology in the world, but if it is not being used effectively then you are losing.

Let’s Wrap This Up

So, it seems like I didn’t talk about the 2018 Survey results regarding mobility as much as one would think when starting a new virtual law firm. You know why? Because none of it should be surprising. People use mobile devices. They use what they prefer. Some people prefer tablets over laptops and vice versa. Great. Use what you prefer and focus on running a solid law firm business model. Implement virtual/mobile/distributed best practices. Don’t do it just for fun. Do it because it makes your practice more effective, your client’s rates cheaper, and maybe even because it makes you a happier person.

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