The Virtual Law Office: Engineered for Efficiency

By Joseph Kashi

Let’s start with a basic question: What is a virtual law office? The definition’s been changing almost as quickly as the technology. Nearly every lawyer now practices “virtually” to some extent, even if only responding to e-mail from a client or another lawyer, or sending portable document format (PDF) files and digital photographs to an out-of-state expert.

Many laymen think of a virtual law practice as one that has no fixed office, that’s oriented toward one-time transactional work, and that rarely, if ever, involves direct client contact. That’s not yet the norm.

Most law practices still include a significant degree of personal interaction and trial work, often with clients of long standing. Most lawyers now routinely use technology, especially fast long-distance communications, to deliver traditional legal services faster and more efficiently, but generally lawyers still practice in traditionally organized small offices and law firms.

However, this may be changing—thanks, in part, to economic stress and society’s evolving acceptance of electronic relationships.

Technology produces its greatest benefits when we “re-engineer” what we do and how we do it, taking advantage of a new technology’s unique capabilities and efficiencies. Doing so requires that we rethink how we practice law. In this article, I’ll focus on adapting a traditional law practice to take better advantage of the opportunities inherent in modern technology.

Traditional Practice, Virtually
So, how does traditional law practice go “virtual”? I believe that it would:

  • use Internet-based “cloud” computing technology and modern communications to allow lawyers, support staff, experts, and clients to work together efficiently, regardless of their physical location;
  • have a stable core group of lawyers;
  • have established collaborative relationships with other, specialized law firms that possess expertise that is occasionally needed;
  • expand and reduce personnel as needed;
  • often but not always operate from remote locations; and
  • be reasonably “paperless,” sharing centrally located electronic documents and files.

Frankly, there is nothing new, or even very frightening, about operating at least partially as a virtual law firm, provided you use due care. Indeed, most lawyers already have at least some experience working in a “virtual” law firm setting, often without even realizing it. For example, lawyers regularly associate with, and work closely with, local counsel in other states or distant cities as the need arises. Often, they’ve never met these people face-to-face, yet they rely on them. Lawyers also regularly associate with other attorneys who have known expertise in specialized areas. It’s common for several law offices scattered across the country to share generalized work product or join forces on major cases that are too big for any single law firm.

Lawyers also regularly work with professional and paraprofessional staff who either telecommute or otherwise work off-premises. We are comfortable working with temporary contract investigators, court reporters, lawyers, expert witnesses, and researchers whom we may not physically meet very often, if at all. Likewise, in larger organizations, we often have little physical contact with co-workers on whom we depend and with whom we frequently work.

In a very real sense, the voice telephone and later the fax machine were the first transitions away from working exclusively face-to-face with people. During the past several years, however, efficient long-distance collaboration among lawyers who may never physically meet have dramatically increased as high-bandwidth Internet technologies finally made the process fast, easy, and efficient.

If you really need to work with the other person face-to-face, free video-conferencing from a provider such as Skype ( www.skype.com) works surprisingly well. Using a cheap webcam and Skype real-time video broadcast over a regular DSL Internet connection, I’ve been able to conduct computer camps for students at a Rotary-sponsored school in Thailand from my Alaska office. Until I turned the webcam toward an outside window in late winter, these Thai students had never seen snow. (We had plenty.)

Cloud Computing
With the broad use of document imaging, documents stored somewhere in the Internet “cloud,” and web-based application programs, it’s entirely feasible—and inexpensive—for a traditional law office to go “virtual” and cast off the bounds of practicing only from a fixed physical location.

The Internet cloud refers to data that’s stored throughout the Internet but accessible through a single-access website. More than anything, virtual law practice is driven by cloud computing, storing and sharing documents throughout the world through high-bandwidth Internet connections.

If you’ve ever used Gmail from Google ( www.google.com) to store and share documents, photos, or videos, then you’ve used cloud computing. Where your files are physically stored among Google’s hundreds of thousands of computers is known only to Google. All that you know is that you access your documents through a Google website. Google’s cloud usually provides every user with about seven or so gigabytes of free document storage. If you want more, then you’ll be assessed a regular fee. Other vendors, such as Amazon ( www.amazon.com) and Microsoft ( www.microsoft.com), also provide fee-based cloud data storage.

Cloud computing has some real advantages:

  • Data is always accessible from any high-bandwidth Internet connection worldwide. This makes virtual collaboration nearly as easy as working with the person down the hall.
  • Because collaboration is done online in a multi-user mode, online documents are up-to-date.
  • Cloud computing vendors such as Google often provide very useful, free application programs that work well enough with cloud-based documents. For example, the free Google Docs application suite includes word processing, spreadsheets, photo processing, and calendaring. Open Office ( www.openoffice.org) is surprisingly effective with web-based documents, and the many photo-sharing websites such as Flickr ( www.flickr.com) usually include useful, if basic, photo programs.
  • Web-based programs usually use standard, non-proprietary file formats, allowing you to download your documents and use your regular software for heavy-duty processing.
  • Experienced cloud computing vendors such Google, Adobe ( www.adobe.com), and Amazon usually have adequate security and data protection measures.
  • Some web-based legal vendors offer transactional document assembly and other one-time services that can be cost-effective if you’re a lawyer experienced in that area of the law and able to competently evaluate the quality and accuracy of the finished product. This is probably the single most useful fee-based software as a service (SaaS) for lawyers in traditional law practices.

Of course, some real problems remain:

  • Unless the vendor is financially stable and has a good track record, there’s a very real chance that a company selling cloud computing services may unexpectedly shut the doors, putting your data into limbo, at best. This just happened with Intuit, and it’s ethically and practically unacceptable for any legal practice. So choose carefully: Moving a few hundred gigabytes of data to another cloud vendor would be complex and leave you susceptible to data loss. In addition to Google, Adobe, and Amazon, also investigate experienced cloud computing vendors that focus on working with lawyers, such as Catalyst ( www.catalystsecure.com), particularly if you have complex matters.
  • Reliable backup is another potential source of trouble. If you have a large amount of data stored in the Internet cloud, then backing up that data yourself will be difficult and tedious, if not impossible as a practical matter. At this point, you’re at the mercy of the cloud vendor. Once again, be choosy.
  • Bandwidth limitations will determine how effectively you’ll be able to collaborate online when using very large documents, such as large evidence or discovery files.
  • Cloud-based document imaging programs are rudimentary at best, lacking the depth of features and sophistication of programs such as Adobe Acrobat Professional.
  • Even though cloud storage vendors probably have better digital security than most of us, there will always be a legitimate concern about the possibility that confidential data might be compromised.
  • Important legal-specific programs such CaseMap and TimeMap (both can be found at www.casesoft.com) are not currently optimized to work in a cloud setting.
  • The document-management features of most general-purpose cloud computing vendors are weak compared to office-based systems. Legal-specific vendors such as Catalyst are a much better choice for larger matters—their entire raison d’être is the storage, search, and analysis of legal documents.

So, what is the best approach to cloud computing until the time when these problems are resolved? Here are some short-term solutions:

  • Maintain your primary records and documents locally on a network directly owned, controlled, and constantly backed up by your law firm.
  • Use the cloud solely for the storage of active documents that must be regularly accessed and shared by remote users.
  • Regularly back up all cloud-based data by downloading it to your own local area network, and be sure that you have the most recent version stored locally.
  • Avoid posting very large documents containing hundreds of megabytes. Instead, use a series of smaller, perhaps linked, files for better performance and lower bandwidth demands.
  • Use non-proprietary data file formats within your own office and for web-based documents. Doing so reduces compatibility issues when you have many users and positions you to avoid data compatibility problems in the future.
  • Know the law and know what you’re doing. Internet-based legal services can be cost-effective but only if you’re already in a position to evaluate the quality of the product.

Hiring and Training in a Virtual Office
Quality control and the training and mentoring of associates will become even more important, but also more difficult, in the virtual law office. We’ll lose some of our ability to informally and efficiently review intermediate work and discuss it with staff, lawyers, and experts who are not physically located in our offices. I believe that quality-control issues are an underappreciated problem arising in connection with virtual law offices.

Established law firms traditionally placed great emphasis on grooming promising lawyers and staff for the long haul, training less experienced staff, and gradually giving them more authority as they gained experience and ability—they were the future of the firm. Training competent new lawyers and law firm longevity will likely be adversely affected as we transition to more fluid virtual law firm structures.

Traditionally, more experienced senior attorneys understood, and could do, everything assigned to new staff, and thus could effectively mentor and supervise less experienced staff. Senior partners met with the client and set strategy, often being the only persons who really understood the big picture. Small portions of a matter, along with explicit directions, were given piecemeal to less senior staff. Ultimately, the finished product arrived back on the desk of the partner in charge of the case, who theoretically checked the work for quality and judgment.

The days of the generic junior attorney and staffer are gone along with the pencil-and-paper era. We need to hire and retain better-trained, technically adept staff, particularly paralegals with extensive technology experience. Many of these staff members must have skills that many lawyers currently comprehend only with difficulty. In good economic climates, such employees are in high demand and very mobile. Rather than directing such employees in detail, we need to motivate and lead them. We’ll need to adapt our management style to a more collegial, democratic approach that better suits an increasingly professional support staff.

The virtual law office ipso facto needs employees who are comfortable working with advanced computer systems and who can readily learn new technology, techniques, and processes. Because advanced technology requires advanced skills, we’ll have to invest a substantial amount of time and money in training employees to a mix of constantly evolving skills through specialized outside trainers. Losing such employees is not only expensive in terms of hiring and training replacements, but also very debilitating to our productivity.

However, the virtual law office also has some real staffing advantages. Although there is a strong premium on highly knowledgeable senior staff, routine clerical chores such as filing and low-level data entry become simpler, less tedious, and require less case-specific knowledge. This allows a firm to be less dependent on clerical employees for routine chores.

Virtual Restructuring
Both the economic recession and the Internet are forcing law offices to restructure their operations and become more efficient—and “virtual” organizational models may become increasingly prevalent. Law offices, particularly litigators, need to “re-engineer” their operations to emphasize excellent internal communications and fast, precision delivery by a small, often ad hoc team. Information has always been power, but now that information must be more effectively and clearly focused than ever.

Why are a law office’s structure and internal communications becoming so important? In the pencil-and-paper era, large firms used the brute force of many associates and paralegals to manually collect and process the vast amount of information required by any significant litigation or transaction. These sorts of law offices are expensive, counter-productive anachronisms in an era where a fast Internet connection makes a para-legal on the other side of the continent almost as accessible as one down the hall. An Internet-based virtual law office can leverage the effectiveness of a few highly experienced lawyers and staff, regardless of where they live. In this era of web-hosted document-imaging files, we don’t even need to be overly concerned about where the paper files, if any, are located.

I’ve identified below several possible models of how the forward-looking law office might consider structuring itself.

Ad hoc action teams. One reorganizational approach might be to form small ad hoc action teams around a stable core of experienced lawyers. Such teams would form and dissolve in response to individual projects or to specific aspects of a very large case, with their results quickly available to the ultimate decision makers. These teams should include professionals already knowledgeable in specialized areas to ensure a competent, immediate response. Action teams should have their own budgets and their choice of the firm’s personnel. The team’s members would cooperatively process and share information through remote networking technologies. This approach might be particularly useful in medium-to-large litigation offices. Legal-specific web-hosted applications are particularly useful to this sort of action team on the go. Trial notebooks could be posted and commented on using Adobe’s commenting and comment collation features.

The boutique office. Another solution might be to form a separate, highly specialized “boutique” office that already has the specialized knowledge, research, and forms to work quick-breaking projects, particularly legislative affairs. Here, the premium on specialization and fast reaction probably places this option beyond the immediate reach of most general practitioners. Smaller offices could joint-venture as needed with other similar firms possessing complementary expertise—another option made feasible primarily by Internet technology.

The virtual firm. Most commonly, the law office of the future will likely tend toward the virtual law firm, with a small, permanent core group, similar to a military cadre or large construction contractor, drawing on contract professionals and paraprofessional staff as necessary for particular projects. This office’s ability to maintain a broad network of cooperating joint venture partners with expertise in different areas of the law will be crucial to future effectiveness.

I believe that transitioning to this model might prove the most feasible for the average small-to-medium law office of the future, particularly as consumers become more comfortable with entrusting their work to a lawyer whom they’ve met only through the Internet. Although practicing with people we rarely meet physically may seem unnerving, on reflection we see that we do it all of the time using plain, old-fashioned telephone service. The only difference is that Internet technology makes the process smoother and more efficient.

This model has a number of economic advantages, such as reducing rent, travel, and commuting costs. Unfortunately, it also requires that data, documents, case management, and collaborative technology be immediately available across the Internet in a responsive, high-bandwidth environment; as a result, it will not be entirely practicable until overall bandwidth and web-based imaging further improve.

The flattened firm. Another plausible intermediate solution might be to generally retain the traditional vertical law office structure but flatten it by reducing the number of associate lawyers and paraprofessionals who actually research, process, and summarize data and also reducing clerical staff as appropriate. Instead, senior lawyers will be involved more directly with processing and using the raw data through advanced technology.

We can minimize the burden on these senior lawyers through the use of a few associates and paraprofessionals who develop raw information and then input it into advanced document-assembly, case-management, and litigation-support programs such as CaseMap and NoteMap ( www.casesoft.com). These programs help key lawyers find evidentiary items quickly and spot critical information and important patterns. This model has worked for me personally, and my own sense is that the quality of litigation may even improve as intermediate overhead costs decrease.

The hybrid firm. The firm of the future could also reflect a combination of these approaches. Most likely, a slimmed-down traditional law firm structural model will hybridize with the pure Internet-based virtual law firm to produce an intermediate law firm model that has both solidity and flexibility, a model that I believe will remain viable over the long term.

Regardless of which approach is taken, we’ll see law offices adopting an increasingly horizontal structure that emphasizes networking, shared document imaging, and electronic communication. Expect to see radically different law offices that feature reduced litigation staffing, lower overhead, and reductions in the number of clerical staff, associates, and mid-level partners.

Virtually You
Not all, nor even many, of these thoughts about structuring a virtual law office will be directly applicable to your situation. However, cost-effective technology is pushing the entire economy, and thus law firms, to become much more streamlined and efficient. Making the leap is now more a question of changing your mind-set and working habits than waiting for the perfect technology. There’s little future in simply hunkering down and waiting for the cloud to pass.

 

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