Are you thinking about starting a virtual law firm or taking your existing law firm into the cloud? I’ve been running a quasi-virtual law firm for the last 11 years and in this episode, I will be discussing the pros and cons of running this type of firm.
Back in 2008, when I started my trademark practice, I didn’t want to be tied to an office and decided I would go virtual. This was for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it was because I really didn’t want to be stuck in one geographic location. At the time, it was just me, so I didn’t need to collaborate in a space with other people. However, I quickly realized I needed some kind of home base. I didn’t want to work out of my small Washington, DC condo all day long and live there all night long. I also needed somewhere for my mail to come, and even just a place to talk to other human beings during the day. So, I just rented a small office to work from when I wanted to.
As the next year or two unfolded, I was able to take long trips. For example, over the winter, I sometimes rented a small apartment in Miami for a month. Because all my files were in the cloud and I had a phone that could travel with me, I didn’t have to be in my office. It was possible to indulge in these longer types of trips.
Over the years, as we’ve grown the law firm to four or five attorneys and multiple paralegals and support staff, we’ve kept true to that virtual route, but we still have a home base. We have a small office where mostly our paralegals and digital marketing folks can come and work from. But, our attorneys mostly work from home or from shared office locations in the cities that they live. Doing this has allowed us to maintain a lot of flexibility as a firm, but to also have some of the traditional aspects in place.
A virtual law firm doesn’t mean you can’t have an office. Typically, it just means you’re not renting these super ritzy offices that cost tens of thousands of dollars a month, which require you to then charge your clients a lot more. You can have a very modest office where you operate from and still be a virtual law firm.
What are the pros of virtual law firms?
1. Physical location is flexible
Whether it’s a better climate, a lower cost of living, having the ability to be flexible in your physical location, to me, is critical. Life changes. Things happen. You may have a desire like I did to travel to a warmer climate in the winter, or now that I’m older and have three kids, we wanted to move out to suburbia and be closer to our families. We’re able to do that without missing a beat, because everything is in the cloud and we aren’t tied to an expensive physical office space.
2. Lack of commute
I cannot understand in today’s world why people spend hours every day commuting. There’s just simply no reason for it, and it is an enormous waste of time, especially for someone like an attorney who bills for our time.By completely eliminating a commute or making a commute as minimal as possible, you gain so much time back in your day to take better care of yourself, to spend more time with your family, or if necessary to spend more time working for your clients.
3. Flexible schedules
The third point is that you just have more time to be available for your family and other important things in your life. If I have a child that needs to go to the doctor, or I have something else I need to do on a personal level, I can get that done. I’m not trying to put face time in with everybody that’s working for the firm, and everybody from the firm doesn’t have to put face time in with me every day.
We could all get our personal things done as we need to, not worrying about whether we’re tethered to the office or not. You know, if my daughter has a cheerleading practice, I take my laptop there, everything’s available in the cloud. I can work on email and keep an eye on the practice. And that goes for anything I’m doing basically. So, I mean, arguably, you may want to leave it, your work, aside at some point, but you’re just being basically able to be free or to be with your family even if you need to get some work done. And that is a huge advantage to having everything available in the cloud and being able to literally work anywhere as long as you have a phone and a laptop, which is how I view setting up a virtual law firm as being critical. You just have to be able to take a phone and a laptop and be completely able to get all your work done, no questions asked. And if you could do that, that flexibility opens you up for all sorts of things that maybe you want to be a part of for your family but wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise if you were tethered to an office.
4. Keeps you tech savvy
A virtual law firm really keeps you focused on technology and up to date with the latest technology. So many law firms get to be dinosaurs of the past, because they have their systems in place and never change, because they don’t have to change. And when you’re a virtual law firm, there’s new software coming out every couple of months that you want to evaluate and use, and there’s efficiencies that you can put in your processes all the time, and you’re always up to date on technology, because you have to be, it forces you to be, and I think that’s a great place to be for any law firm.
5. Access to world-wide talent
The fifth, and perhaps most important part of running a virtual law firm, is that you get access to literally worldwide talent. In other words, if I want to hire a trademark attorney for our practice, I’m not limited to the Washington, DC area. I can hire a trademark attorney from anywhere in the United States and set them up and be fully operational whether or not they’re in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, or California. It simply doesn’t matter. And that lets me pull from a talent pool that is anywhere in the U.S., and if you’re an international firm, would be from anywhere in the world. And, of course, your employees are likely to love the arrangement for the same reasons I just went over. They’re going to lose a long commute. They’re going to get to spend more time with their family. They’re going to get to go do things they could have otherwise done, because they could actually bring the work with them and still efficiently get it done.
For all of those reasons, again, if you’re setting up a virtual law firm or even a quasi-virtual firm where some people work remotely and there’s still a home base somewhere, these are all benefits that you can enjoy as a law firm owner and you can pass down to your employees and other attorneys that work with your firm. So while there’s a lot of benefits to running a virtual law firm, there are some drawbacks as well. And I’ve experienced them over the years. In running my law practice, there are three things that really every day bother me by the fact that we’re not all under the same roof.
What are the cons of virtual law firms?
1. Emotional disconnect
The first con is that I cannot understand if one particular attorney or person is having a bad day or has a problem. For the folks that I work with day-in and day-out, I can see their faces every morning. I understand if there’s a problem going on in their personal lives or something at work that’s bothering them.
For everybody else that works at the firm, I have to proactively check in with them and ensure everything’s okay. I can’t just observe and see if everything’s going all right. And there’s a big difference there. It’s intangible that if you’re just with somebody and you can have those, you know, feelings, you can see the nonverbal communication, you can see all those things you don’t get in a virtual setting. So, as someone that’s managing a virtual law firm, and if you’re going to manage a firm, you have to find a way to try to keep a bit on how everybody is doing, and that’s going to take some time on your part. It’s also not the easiest thing to do. I’m still working on doing it myself on a day-to-day basis.
So, that is just something that is one of the downfalls. Now, one tip here to try to overcome that is using video conferencing. You know, you can go online now and just jump on a quick video chat just as easy as you kind of phone call and try to use those to build rapport or talk to the folks that are working with your firm I think can be really helpful in watching out for some of these issues.
2. Lack of team unity
The second con, which goes sort of along with the first one, is that it’s harder for your team to build unity outside of you. In other words, I may talk to the four or five people that work virtually for our firm every day, but not all those people are talking amongst themselves. So if everybody’s in the same office, you know, you get that team working together, maybe some new ideas come out, maybe, you know, they get to know each other, and there’s more synergy in how they work together. And when everybody’s spread out, that’s a lot harder to force and have people get to know one another and work well together.
So, you have to maybe think of some time for team building exercises you wouldn’t have otherwise if everybody’s working in remote locations just to get some cohesiveness to the team that you’ve put in place.
3. Support staff management
The final drawback to virtual law firms is that while it can be relatively easy in today’s world for attorneys to be virtual, and I think attorneys by their nature after going through law school are good self-starters, they know how to keep themselves busy, understand there’s a lot of metrics to knowing how much work your attorneys are getting done, when it comes to paralegals and other administrative staff, it can be a lot harder to have them work remotely, because typically the tasks are a little bit shorter. Typically, you may need to work with them a little bit more in depth to provide instruction, to provide guidance. And it’s just harder to manage those positions than it is sometimes the attorneys. There’s also less metrics to sometimes judge production and things of that nature.
So, one of the things that I have done, which I found very helpful, is while we do have a paralegal and an administrative person that works off of our main office site, I now have the majority of our paralegals and marketing staff with me on site. This allows for the day-to-day interaction. It allows for me to be able to get feedback that’s much more immediate that I couldn’t get otherwise. And it’s been a very good thing for the firm to sort of have that and have me working with them on a daily basis.
So, think about that. Think about it when you’re setting up your virtual firm. You don’t have to be completely virtual. You can have an office and maybe have some of your support staff with you so that, you know, it’s a little bit easier to manage a portion of the firm and then the attorneys, you know, again, maybe you don’t have the talent pool locally, you need to go outside of the local area for the talent that you need. But that’s a lot easier to manage virtually. Sometimes then folks like the paralegals or marketing staff that your firm may employ. So, I hope you found this helpful. Again, you know, my experience here in the last 11 years is I don’t believe in just going fully virtual, and there’s no home base anywhere. I think that you just sort of need that gathering place. You need the place to get your mail. You need some place to get some things done.
If you’re a solo, might be a little bit easier just to completely go virtual and not even have an office. But the minute you start becoming more than a solo, you’re going to find in all likelihood that you’re going to want some kind of home base, and having some kind of home base will be good for you and the firm. Just always avoid those long-term leases. I want a year-to-year lease. You know, if something changes, we move offices, we do whatever we got to do. I don’t sign five-year leases. You just…it’s hard to look five years into the future, and that really can lock your firm in when you don’t want to be locked in. And, you know, one thing to consider about that, just as a final note here, because we don’t have a long-term lease, I don’t have a lot of stuff at the office. I don’t have tons and tons of files. It’s all in the cloud. If we had to pick up and move, it’s a few desks and chairs. It’s really not a lot.
If you’re someone that needs to have a ton of stuff in the office, you might want to sign a longer lease just to avoid moving fees. But the idea is just keep your office lean, keep it a small space, keep it…you know, don’t have a ton of stuff there that you would have to move if you decide to move. And, again, that keeps you flexible.
I hope you found this helpful. Please feel free to reach out to us on social media. We’ve got Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn. All those places you can reach out to us. You can always also just email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have an idea for a show, want to share a tip about how you’ve run a virtual law firm, please, please join the conversation. That’s what this is all about. So I hope you have a great rest of your day, and I’ll talk to you next time.