Virtual Lawyers vs Real Lawyers
Published on 16 Mar 2017 by Team
Virtual lawyers run highly efficient, low overhead firms with no fancy brick and mortar office space. Virtual lawyers are either solo attorneys working from home or lawyers belonging to a wider network of mobile lawyers who are leveraging technology to run a flexible business model with competitive pricing.
A lawyer’s tools of the trade are generally his or her brain and the gift of speech. Our words, our communication, analytical and strategic skills and our ability to distil large volumes of information in order to advise clients define how we perform as a lawyer. Yet virtual lawyers also need ‘tools’ like any other profession or trade to run a ‘lean and clean’ operation and tech tools are our best friend.
So what apps and tools should the virtual lawyer have in his or her toolbox? Let’s take a look at the types of software and systems that will assist a lawyer in setting up a thriving virtual practice.
The Basic Virtual Toolkit
Broadly speaking, there are 6 areas you need to look at when launching a virtual firm:
- How will I market my services to clients?
- What system will I use for practice management?
- How will I manage documents?
- How will I communicate with my clients?
- What reference materials and educational resources will I need?
- How will I manage my workflow?
Most lawyers immediately jump to practice management systems and technology tools when considering starting a firm. We’re hardwired to think about processes and systems and establishment costs.
But what about clients?
Newsflash: you need clients to run a law firm! Marketing, social media and lead generation is super important if you’re going to run a profitable practice.
A few quick tips:
- Set up a website: 46.1% of people say a website’s design is the number one criterion for discerning the credibility of the company. There are so many amazing template websites out there so there’s no excuse not to have a website. It is your international business portal and the face of your virtual practice. I also highly recommend starting a blog (even once a month) or publishing compelling content on a platform like LinkedIn Pulse.
- Focus on 1 or 2 social media platforms and do them well: Whether it’s Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram, find where your clients hang out and make it your little niche. Share useful and engaging content with your audience on a consistent basis and remember that 40% of people respond to visual rather than plain text so use images and infographics whenever you can!
- Email Signup: Make sure your website allows people to sign up for your newsletter and/or blog so that you can build your loyal client database. Send out a newsletter to your subscribers in order to stay top of mind.
- Testimonials and Referrals: Good old-fashioned networking, in person and online, is always the number one lead generator. Ask your clients to give you a positive testimonial for your website if they are happy with your service and always thank your regular referrers.
- Q&A Forums: Online Q&A forums set you in good stead to be considered an expert in your area. Forums like Avvo and Quora are a great place to start with.
From time tracking and reporting to conflict checks to matter management, a good practice management solution is the central organisation hub that allows a lawyer to operate the practice efficiently. Choosing a cloud-based system is critical for virtual lawyers as it is the most easily deployed and you (or staff) can access the data and system from anywhere. Whenever you log in, automatic updates are performed seamlessly so there’s no need for manual intervention.
Products like Clio, MyCase, Practice Panther, Leap Cloud (an Aussie market player) and other cloud systems are great ones to try out if you’re starting out in your virtual firm. And if you decide to grow your firm from a sole practice to a larger enterprise, you can simply add extra seats or licenses as you acquire contractors and employees.
With respect to financing and billing, this may all be incorporated into your practice management system however it will also help to have a cloud-based system for your bookkeeper or accountant to log onto and help you (particularly around tax time) as well as helping you stay on top of trust accounting and business financials throughout the year.
Inextricably linked to practice management, document management is still an area of your virtual practice which requires careful consideration. Traditional law firms typically store files in a centralized file cabinet or server. Virtual law firms, however, store all files in digital format and use a cloud-based solution to make documents available to the entire staff, independent of physical location and on any device.
Storage providers such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive/Google for Business and Net Documents allow law firms to store documents online, either for free or with a premium plan that charges only for space that you actually use and you may be able to integrate these with your practice management system. Depending on the product, there may be local storage options as well as productivity and collaboration features so you can have an assistant on the other side of the world jump online to share or edit an important document. Of course, your practice management system may have this covered however here is some quick info on some of the other options:
- Dropbox – a web-based cloud storage system with up to 2GB of free storage, with a tiered payment system for increased storage. Dropbox Pro is $12.99 per month (1000GB of additional storage) and Dropbox for Business is $17 per user per month. Works on Apple and Android. Dropbox does not, however, allow encrypted files to be shared through its system and attorneys should keep this in mind before sharing confidential client information on the platform.
- Box – A secure content management, collaboration and file sharing program with a range of pricing options including Starter ($6 per month), Business ($17), Enterprise (premium package). The Starter pack is designed for teams of 3 to 10 people with 100GB secure storage, 2 GB max file size, mobile, sync and share capabilities and document encryption amongst other features.
- Google Drive – With Google, you get 15GB free storage and file sharing capabilities in the cloud, accessible from any device. Google Apps for Work is $5 per user per month and it includes business email addresses ([email protected]), videos and voice calls, integrated online calendars and security and admin controls.
- OneDrive – Microsoft’s cloud-based file sharing and document storage system. Also offers 15GB free storage, or 100GB at the US $1.99 per month, 200GB at US$3.99 per month or 1TB storage for businesses at US$6.99 per month, including Office 365.
This is not an exhaustive list but you get the gist. You should definitely inquire about the security level of your chosen platform and question the company’s data protection measures. Data sovereignty and ownership is another big issue but that’s for another post! Keep in mind that most attorneys have been using email for years and many cloud-based systems offer greater protection than unencrypted email.
One final tip: signing up for an electronic signature platform will help you and your clients send and sign documents with ease.
It’s not in some alternative Interstellar dimension. Sometimes you actually meet in person like a regular lawyer (who knew?), either at court or in a co-working office space, hired a meeting room or in a local cafe. The rest of the time, you’ll be hanging out online so you’ll need to select rockstar video conferencing tools: from Microsoft Lync to Skype and GoToMeeting to Google Hangouts, there’s plenty of options available for face-to-face meetings. They’re the kind of meetings where you brush your hair, pop on your lippy and make sure you look respectable up top without ever leaving your home office – you can sit in your sweats and uggs for all we care (or underwear if you really want to, whatever takes your fancy?! Just don’t tell your client that might get a little creepy …
The final system you may want to use is Voice over IP (VOIP). This can be used to offer voice mail/messaging technology if you’re on your own or regularly out of the office, without an assistant to take your calls. And, most importantly, make sure your internet connection is sufficient to support your office operations and communications with clients. Link speed is super important with cloud technology so if you’re unsure about your link speed, ask an IT consultant to give you advice about your internet options.
With so many free online legal research tools available, it can be tempting to opt out of a legal research system. If you’re working in a speciality area or you need access to case law fast, it might be a good idea to pay for a solid legal research product.
Big players like Lexis Nexis and Thomson Reuters have options for sole practitioners and small law firms which integrate with practice management and allow you to select certain practice areas without spending a bomb on the whole research package.
Having a dispersed team and no fixed location makes productivity and workflow more important than ever. Streamline your work and allocate tasks with ease using apps and tools like Trello, Evernote, Notes and Basecamp. A lot of the practice management systems also have workflow features now so there’s no excuse for work overlaps and missed deadlines!
REAL LAW FIRMS OR CHAMBER PRACTICE
An alternative model which shares some structural attributes with the virtual law firm but seeks to address these concerns is the “chambers practice”. This model similarly promises its lawyers greater autonomy and freedom from bureaucracy but combines these with many of the best features of a traditional firm. Its focus is uncompromisingly on quality, with the aim of making the firm a machine for winning new work and doing it well.
How traditional Law Firms do business:
- The firm will be based in physical offices where every lawyer has a desk. Personal meetings are the best way for relationships and business to develop, and the office will be the hub of the firm’s activity (although attendance every day is unlikely to be mandatory).
- The firm will have a clear client-facing message. Its marketing may describe a cohesive way of working; it may have sector specialism; there will be no irrelevant practice areas.
- As a result, there will be a distinctive firm culture. Having been selected carefully, the lawyers will be encouraged to share contacts, refer business and work in teams. So although these lawyers will not profit-share, their approach will be strongly collegiate.
Why the name
The firm’s solicitors are self-employed as barristers in chambers and there is a similar emphasis on specialist expertise. However, such a firm also retains the character of a single practice in that its lawyers will habitually team up on transactions. There is no boast of any “virtual” credentials as this looks more like a message to lawyers than to clients (to whom it may suggest something unreal). The firm’s structure, involving experienced lawyers working in teams with reduced overheads, is adopted not to allow disillusioned practitioners to work from home but because it is the best way of keeping the firm’s promises to clients.
In conclusion, it can be said that as lawyers are increasingly using web-based computing, virtual law practices–once a rarity–are becoming more commonplace. Virtual law practices are law firms that do not have a brick-and-mortar office but instead are operated from lawyers’ homes or satellite offices. Legal services are typically delivered to clients using Internet-based technologies such as law practice management software with built-in client portals.
Virtual law practices offer lawyers increased flexibility, allowing them to practice law from just about anywhere, as long as they have Internet access. But not only are virtual law practices convenient for lawyers, their clients also benefit. This is because web-based technologies allow lawyers to communicate and collaborate with clients using online web portals. Web-based online portals also give virtual law practices a competitive advantage over more traditional law practices by providing clients with 24/7 access to information–something legal 21st-century legal consumers are beginning to expect. There are many different types of lawyers who have successful virtual law practices. But regardless of their practice area, the choice to hang a virtual shingle instead of practising from a physical law office is often made by lawyers seeking to practice law on their own terms.
As technology advances, a rigorous focus on client needs will be vital in preserving a role for lawyers. The chambers model will make sense to those of us who seek greater autonomy and efficiency, enabled by while remaining serious about being lawyers. The model allows us to offer our expertise to clients in an attractive and sustainable way, working with skilled and committed colleagues within a vibrant, non-virtual culture and community.technology,
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