GPSolo Magazine - September 2004

Practice Management

The Future Law Office: Going Virtual

Think of all the tools and resources for going virtual that are at our disposal today. We know how they enable us to do our work when we are on the road. What about when we are off the road? Doing more work from home offices and other alternative spaces could mean dollars in the pocket, increased efficiencies, and more time to relax.

The three c’s that explain the value of office space. Historically, traditional law firm office space has seemed essential because of the “three c’s”: core services, collaboration, and control. Core services means the resources that individual lawyers need to deliver their services to clients, including individual office space, equipment, and staff. Collaboration reflects the fact that lawyers need nice office space so they can collaborate with colleagues, meet with clients, and negotiate with opposing counsel. Control relates to interactions of another kind. In the traditional models of work, managers and supervisors must be physically near workers to make sure that people do whatever it is they should be doing.

The demise of the three c’s. A “before and after” portrait of the office of today compared to that of 20 years ago would be striking: PCs, sophisticated telephone systems, fax machines, and the Internet have fully penetrated even the smallest of law offices. Combining the new technologies with other factors means that the three c’s are much less important today than even a few years ago.

Access to core services no longer requires space in a traditional office building. For an increasing number of lawyers, it may require no more than a spare room at home. Today, “big box” stores, such as Staples and Office Depot, make buying office equipment and furniture affordable. And a high-speed residential Internet connection will hardly break the bank. Between affordable equipment and an Internet connection, that extra room now has many of the capabilities of a traditional, downtown, high-rent office.

Collaboration is a bit dicier. Although there is no true substitute for face-to-face meetings, collaboration is increasingly easy from a home office. Sharing computer files is easy. Solo practitioners and small law offices can use products such as GoToMyPC to access remote computers or web-based services for sharing files. Larger firms can use products such as Citrix Metaframe and virtual private networks to access the central servers they typically use to store all work product.

Communication by voice or e-mail from home is no harder than from a traditional office. For face-to-face communication, videoconferencing is a reasonable option. For jointly viewing or editing documents over a distance, there are many options. Web conferencing software allows sharing the desktop and applications. Other products, such as Viack’s VIA3, allow sharing documents and a video connection on the same screen.

The control factor is a red herring. Although lawyers need to be managed, they do not need to be supervised and controlled by physical observation. A lawyer who objects to a colleague’s working away from a central office because the colleague might not really be working should really be worrying about a more basic problem. Lawyers are obliged to bill their time accurately; an unethical lawyer can pad hours as easily in the office as at home.

The next way: Mixing it up for firms of every size. Without the constraints of the three c’s, we are free to think about new working arrangements. What might this “next way” look like? For various reasons, a true virtual office—meaning an organization without central facilities, where everyone works at home—is not realistic. The next way is more likely to involve a mixed arrangement. Lawyers could work at home many days and, when they come to the firm’s office(s), focus on those activities unique to central offices, such as attending in-person meetings or accessing core services or staff not available elsewhere. For larger firms, the next way might include heavy use of low-overhead, limited-amenity suburban “satellite” offices that offer the three c’s at much lower cost than downtown space. For small firms and solos, it might mean heavier reliance on companies such as Regus that lease high-quality office space on a shared or as-needed basis or on clubs that rent conference rooms as needed.

The benefit of the next way for firms small and large is a significant reduction in the amount of expensive office space they need. Also, lawyers who avoid nonproductive commutes by working at home or in a nearby suburban satellite office would either have a higher quality of life or be able to bill more hours.

Will the next way work? It seems likely to for many reasons. First, many traditional offices create barriers to face-to-face collaboration. Even if all the floors of a large law office are on the same elevator bank, it can be time-consuming to visit lawyers on other floors. The value of spontaneous interactions is questionable in offices of hundreds of lawyers. Most law firms with multiple offices face another barrier to in-person collaboration. If the multiple offices really act as a single firm—actively cross-selling services and staffing matters based on expertise and availability rather than geography—then the physical location of lawyers should not matter. Once a colleague is not in the same physical office, the technologies discussed earlier mean that it should make no difference whether that colleague works from home or a different office.

Second, many professional service organizations, particularly accounting firms and management consultancies, successfully use “hoteling” (a system of sharing office space). Granted, in these businesses the professionals spend more time at clients’ offices than at their own firms’ offices. But this demonstrates that a firm can operate effectively even though its professionals are widely dispersed.

Third, the next way will be facilitated by decreasing reliance on secretaries. Many solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms already have little or no secretarial support. And in large firms, the ratio of lawyers to secretaries has steadily increased. To the extent there is still lawyer reliance on secretaries within the firm, technology allows secretaries to serve lawyers at a distance.

Next steps: Avoiding problems. Schedule practice group meetings and require attendance absent compelling client reasons. It might turn out that some practice groups exist more in name than in fact. If the next way exposed such a situation, that would be a positive, not a negative. Have more team meetings and other communications. The fact that all the lawyers working together on a matter are all present in one office does not automatically mean that they are coordinated. Between busy schedules and client billing policies, lawyers who run matters sometimes do too little to coordinate the team’s work. Explicit steps to meet more often or coordinate via web-based tools could improve both productivity and morale. Technology can also help address the downsides, including the possible sense of isolation those working at home may feel. Firms can establish collaborative web spaces in which lawyers share client-, practice-, and firm-related information regularly.

Because the next way can be tried on an incremental basis, it does not entail all that much risk.

Ron Friedmann is the president of Prism Legal Consulting, which helps law firms with the strategic use of technology. He can be reached at www.prismlegal.com.

for more information about the Law Practice Management Section

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 30 of Law Practice, January/February 2004 (30:1).

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