“Regardless of any label placed on a law firm, every model must be based upon serving its clients,” said Burton, the founding attorney and principal of Burton Law, a virtual firm with lawyers in Ohio, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. “If the firm loses sight of this purpose, problems will likely ensue, and what would otherwise be a structured system will fall into disorganization. This holds just as true for virtual firms.”
Consequently, virtual firm leaders must maintain focus on who they are serving and how they are doing it. Once the client base is identified, the “how” of serving that base becomes the everyday challenge, Burton said. “Executing the management of an effective virtual team of lawyers, therefore, involves two intertwined concepts: the human element and the technological support,” he said.
The Human Element
The human element is about culture, according to Burton. The virtual firm’s leadership must figure out what the culture will look like. While some virtual firms perform more as a branded network, where the lawyers exist primarily in isolated silos, a better approach is to create a culture of collaboration, Burton said. “This is harder to pull off, but it can better serve the firm’s clients,” he said.
Listed below are some of the key leadership issues for managing a virtual firm with a culture of collaboration. (For the full list, see the article online.)
- Communication is critical. Effective communication helps foster the necessary trust among team members. In a virtual environment, walking to the office down the hall to see how things are going is not possible. The expectation in the culture must be that overcommunicating within the team is a component of success. If the leaders expect this from others, they must demonstrate it themselves with timely responses.
- Be social. Even if everyone does not regularly work under the same roof, this does not mean that getting together cannot occur in other ways. Where possible, in-person collaboration sessions are good, as are regular telephone or videoconference calls to keep the team communicating and sharing ideas. Happy hours do not hurt either.
- Get help. As with a traditional firm, the leaders of a virtual team need support. This means contracting with a virtual assistant service, hiring an operations person, team or both. In theory, the leader of a virtual firm embraces innovation, so the more time that person spends on the firm’s vision and serving the clients, the better.
Choosing technology with some thought will help achieve the points on building the team described above, according to Burton. Listed below are some helpful practices to implement:
- Centralize the firm’s knowledge base. This means using a cloud-based practice management platform, such as Clio or DirectLaw, so that all members of the firm can gain access to firm information from wherever they are working. As the organization grows, centralized document management systems, such as Box or NetDocuments, are crucial for collaborating on client work.
- Make communicating easy. With team members spread across ZIP codes and states, remaining connected is important when face-to-face interaction is not feasible on a daily basis. The tools are endless: Skype, FaceTime, Gmail Chat, text messaging. And of course there are the telephone and email.
- Avoid the shiny object syndrome. With so many new gadgets, software platforms and apps rolling out on a weekly basis, it is easy to get sidetracked with trying the latest and greatest. It’s the leadership’s job to week out the technological noise and implement the product that is best for the firm’s culture.
Law Practice Magazine is a publication of the Law Practice Management Section.