Volume 17, Number 8
Building a Virtual Law Firm
By Deborah L. Stone
The term "law firm" traditionally has conjured up images of wood-paneled walls, large conference rooms, marquees announcing the names of the firm's partners, and long hallways filled with lawyers, paralegals, and legal secretaries working together to meet client needs. Now, thanks to tremendous advances in technology, this image no longer applies to many of us. I now preside over what I call a "virtual law firm." We have no paneling, no conference rooms, no marquee, and no hallways.
In fact, we operate from our homes, and our only links are via technology. The firm is presently made up of myself, another lawyer, and a paralegal/marketing consultant. Each of us is located in a different part of Atlanta. We are a law firm without walls.
Why create a virtual law firm when we could have chosen a mutually convenient location and rented office space? Certainly, there are advantages to having a traditional brick-and-mortar presence-professional interaction, camaraderie, and client convenience, to name a few. However, the three of us are all mothers of small children. We like the convenience and flexibility of working at home. When we added to that the economics-no rent means we all get to take home a larger slice of the pie, and a nonexistent commute in a city known for traffic nightmares means that we have more productive hours in each day-we felt there was no contest. A virtual practice was the way to go.
Our decision to launch a virtual practice was made easier because we practice in the areas of corporate, technology, and intellectual property law. We represent growing businesses, many of which are start-ups engaged in e-commerce. To our clients, the idea of a virtual law firm is no more foreign than the idea of online shopping, banking, or dating. As a technology law firm, we are expected to keep abreast of the latest technological developments. We have merely decided to take that concept a step further and to practice what we preach.
Each of us has many years of "big firm" experience, so when we began our virtual practice, we were used to having support staff to back us up. We were also accustomed to providing clients with high-quality legal work in a professional manner. The challenge for us has been to maintain that high level of professionalism and quality in a virtual environment without the benefits of a large support staff.Establish a Professional Presence
Because professionalism is so important, the first step in creating a virtual office is to contract with an executive suite service provider for telephone, mail, and conference room services. Our executive suite arrangement means that when clients call our main office telephone number, they are greeted by a receptionist answering, "Thank you for calling Stone Law Associates. How may I help you?" When we need to schedule a client meeting, we always offer to go to the client's offices first for their convenience, but if a client prefers to meet at "our offices," as is often the case because many of our clients also work from home, we simply reserve a conference room and give the client directions to the executive suite.
The executive suite provides us with a professional mailing address, which means that we do not have to give clients our home addresses. Mail received at the executive suite can either be picked up or sent via a courier to our homes for a nominal charge. It also adds legitimacy to our practice. While this type of arrangement may seem to be an unnecessary addition to overhead, I believe it is a critical element in creating a professional virtual practice.
The next issue that confronts the virtual firm is how to communicate internally and keep a sense of teamwork when we are not all in one place. The first step in good communication and teamwork is to select carefully the people who will make up your virtual practice. Just as in a traditional law practice, personality is key, and the personnel of a virtual firm need to click so that they can work together efficiently. In addition, virtual firm members must be self-starters because they will be working on their own most of the time.
Given traffic, workloads, and other commitments, our team members do not see each other often, but I try to schedule time for us to meet either for work matters or socially (such as for lunch) at least once a month. In the interim, we communicate daily by telephone and e-mail so that we can keep each other up-to-date on client matters. This ongoing communication also provides each of us with the camaraderie and interaction we are missing by working from home. It is imperative to establish open lines of communication. Just as an open-door policy is important in a traditional office environment, my team must know that they can call or e-mail me with questions or issues anytime. Also, if they feel they need to meet with me face-to-face, I make myself available.Focus on High-Quality Representation
Producing professional quality work is also critical to our being perceived as a "real" firm despite the lack of a brick-and-mortar presence. The firm does not employ a secretary, so each of us is responsible for document production and revision. We each keep letterhead on hand and can generate professional documents easily from all three locations. In addition to investing in a PC or laptop and in software such as Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, and Microsoft Access, which we use for our trademark database, we each have access to a copier, a fax machine, and a printer. I use an all-in-one model that copies, faxes, prints, and scans. This works well because it produces high-quality documents as well as copies in color and black-and-white, and it includes a plain paper fax. It takes up less space on the desktop than having a separate machine for each function. When we have large copy jobs, we simply drive up the street to a copy shop.
With Microsoft Word and WordPerfect on my computer, the documents I produce are compatible with those of other law firms and my clients. All the documents we create internally are e-mailed back and forth during production and revision. Typically, our clients prefer to receive documents via e-mail attachments as well. Because the majority of our clients are technologically knowledgeable, using e-mail for communication suits them perfectly. If we have hard documents we need to share, we can scan them in for e-mailing or fax them.Utilize New Technology and the Internet
Having adequate research materials available to each of us is important, so practicing without a law library filled with books traditionally would have presented a problem. However, now that legal research is available online, we take advantage of subscribing to research media as a firm and have multiple users from various locations. In those rare cases in which materials are not available online, we subscribe to multiple copies of the CD-ROM version of the materials, which is significantly less expensive than purchasing multiple hard copies of the books. Also, the Internet is an excellent source of research materials, and we each have web access from our desktops.
The web provides another significant advantage for the virtual firm. About a year ago, I was convinced that it would be necessary to network our home offices for purposes of time and billing. At that time, the costs of networking exceeded our firm's budget for new technology. I decided to keep using our old method of keeping time manually and compiling all of the individual timesheets into billing statements for each client at the end of the month. This process was tedious and took quite a bit of time, so the innovations brought about by application service providers (ASPs) were welcomed. The new ASPs providing time and billing technology have made a network unnecessary. We now input our time and expenses into a timekeeping program called Timesolv, offered by elite.com. Because the software is available online, our time is kept together in our firm's account, and billing is consolidated without our computers being networked.Establish a Firm Identity and Be Consistent
The final piece to the virtual-firm puzzle is a firm identity. We have established this in several ways. Our firm website describes our practice and our individual backgrounds. Each of us has an e-mail address that correlates to our website address (www.stonelawassoc.com). We have a logo for the firm that appears on our letterhead and business cards, and we each keep a supply of these at our respective offices. We also have a main firm phone number, fax number, and mailing address through the executive suite. Therefore, anyone coming in contact with the firm for the first time perceives us the same way they would perceive a traditional firm with conference rooms, long hallways, and paneled walls.
Having a virtual law practice has become much easier over the past several years as technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. There is little doubt that it will become even easier and more prevalent in the future as technology continues to advance and more people discover the joys and economies of a virtual practice. The economics of this type of firm are advantageous to anyone starting a practice, and the virtual firm offers additional benefits to those who value the flexibility and comfort of working from home.Deborah L. Stone is an attorney and founder of Stone Law Associates, Inc., in Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. The firm practices in the areas of corporate, technology, and intellectual property. She left her practice with a large Atlanta firm in the mid-1990s to strike out on her own, and in the past year has been joined by another attorney and a paralegal, both of whom also have chosen to leave large-firm practice. She can be reached