Virtual law firm status has worked out so well for some firms, they’re making the switch permanent. Should you?
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, office workers everywhere have shown that to be productive, all you need is a laptop, a reliable internet connection and a desk. This begs the question: Do people really need to be inside an office all day? While firms are announcing their back-to-the-office plans, you may be wondering if it is possible to move your law office to a virtual setting permanently. And if so, what is the best way to go about it?
Virtual Firms Aren’t Always 100% Remote
While the term “virtual” law firm may sound like everyone works 100% remotely, it’s not about where you are working. It’s about how you work together and how you deliver your legal services.
Your location could be a hybrid of working from home or a coffee shop, and occasionally working from a rented or shared office space. The latter can be especially useful for meeting with clients when you would rather not meet online, or you could rent an office exclusively for ad hoc meetings. Note: While you could meet clients at a public location, I do not recommend that: You would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy during your discussion.
Related: “How to Ethically Practice in Place” by Mark C. Palmer
Benefits of a Virtual Law Firm
A virtual setting can have many benefits.
Lower overhead. Whether you have a smaller office space or bypass having one completely, you will not have to spend as much on renting a physical location and all the costs associated with it: utilities, furniture, parking.
More flexibility. Bosses love to be bosses in part because they do not have to let anyone know if they are coming in late, or if they have to leave in the middle of the day to pick up their kids from school. But these types of things come up for everyone — not just bosses. If one of your employees likes to go for morning runs or has a child who needs to be dropped off at soccer practice, does it really matter if they sit at a desk where you can watch during business hours? What really matters is their work is done well and they complete it on time. The truth is that, as long as pleadings are filed in a timely manner, discovery is completed, client questions are answered, and everyone complies with ethics rules, it really makes no difference if the work is done at 9 a.m. or in the evening after putting the kids to bed. Also, with more flexibility, there’s the hope of better work-life balance, which means happier employees and a lower turnover rate.
A less-stressed and more productive team. When was the last time you enjoyed sitting in traffic? The same way you hate wasting your time so does everybody else at your firm. Instead of having them stress over long commutes, rerouting if there’s an accident, or stressing out over road closures, they can simply walk from their kitchen to their home desk or local hotspot and get to work.
How to Best Transition Your Firm to Be Fully Virtual
As with anything else, working remotely full-time comes with a learning curve. There are several things you should keep in mind when transitioning to a fully virtual law firm. Here are five:
1. Use the Right Tools
We’ve all experimented with a number of communications and collaboration tools this past year. Now is the time to review which of those tools are best for your virtual firm going forward — and to make sure everyone knows how to use them.
First, you want to be able to communicate easily with other lawyers and staff. Is a messaging and collaboration tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams best to help you do this? For videoconferencing, is it time to go all-in with Zoom and upgrade your team’s setup? Or will GotoMeeting or Google Hangouts suffice?
Is everyone consistently using online calendaring tools? Whether Office 365 or Google Calendar make sure meetings, hearings, depositions and trial dates are shared and don’t slip through the cracks.
Depending on the size and scope of your practice, consider moving to cloud-based practice management or case management software. This can help streamline how you manage client files and run your practice. Most practice management software includes — or integrates with — client portals, billing and accounting software, document automation, and intake onboarding and marketing tools.
Whatever tools you choose, hold training sessions while sharing your screen so that you can avoid problems down the road with less tech-savvy employees.
2. Transition to E-signatures
While some offices are still instructing clients to print out documents, sign them, scan them, and email them back (or worse, fax them), doing so is ineffective and unreasonable. Not everyone has access to a printer or scanner, and requiring clients to jump through hoops to retain your services will only send them looking for another lawyer. DocuSign is easy, secure, and as legally binding as a physical signature. It also results in transactions being completed in a matter of minutes instead of within days or weeks.
3. Upgrade Your Online Presence
Being online gives you the opportunity to attract a wider audience. But to do so, you’ll want to pop up online whenever someone researches the types of cases you want. This includes having an updated website that is optimized for search engines, a complete Google My Business profile, a blog or newsletter and consistently sharing your articles and posts on social media. The key is to engage with potential clients, whether via a Google search or a Facebook post. Always respond promptly to comments and reviews. Share insights or explanations of common concepts on video and post them on YouTube. These practices will help establish you as an industry authority and foster trust with potential clients.
4. Promote a Good Internal Culture in a Virtual Law Firm
When everyone’s working remotely, office dynamics change. Without small talk in the elevator or impromptu lunch outings, you need to work on preserving working relationships by scheduling weekly meetings or check-ins. You can do work-related check-ins where everyone gives updates on their most important cases, or pick each other’s brains if they encounter a hurdle. You can also celebrate firm wins online or hold virtual happy hours to keep ties strong between face-to-face meet-ups.
5. Draft New Office Policies
Finally, be sure to update your employee manual to reflect this new reality. For example, even if you offer flexible hours, set expectations for virtual meetings — such as having a professional appearance and adequate lighting, setting up branded, virtual backgrounds, muting microphones when not speaking, and being available to answer questions during regular business hours (even if Joe or Nancy have to run an errand in the middle of the day). If virtual backgrounds are not used, then employees should be reminded to remove non-professional or messy-looking items from within the screen’s view. Further, employees should be reminded to close other windows and remove other distractions and look into the camera when speaking and listening. Spouses, children and others should not interrupt when engaging in video calls. Also, establish cybersecurity procedures, such as only working from secure networks. And if you need certain positions to work nine to five, specify which ones on the new policies.
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