YourABA: December 2013
YourABA December 2013 Masthead

Virtual law firm basics and benefits

Technological advancements are changing client expectations and evolving the legal profession. In a recent webinar from the American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center, experts explained the benefits of providing legal services online and the practical realities of operating virtual law firms.

What is a virtual law firm? It’s just like any other law firm, except there’s an emphasis on tools and communications between lawyers and clients, said Joshua Lenon, director of communications and outreach for Clio, a provider of Web-based practice management software. “Rather than investing in both a location and the trappings associated with it, you’re instead looking at tools that allow you to communicate easily, quickly and efficiently from any location between attorneys in the firm and between clients as well,” Lenon said. “In a virtual law firm, lawyers can work in the traditional office setting or they can work from home or from coffee shops and communicate and work effectively with clients from any of these locations.”

There are a number of benefits of working virtually, including expanded jurisdictions, Lenon said. “In a virtual law firm setting, it’s very easy to expand into another jurisdiction because your tools will allow you to be an effective attorney anywhere within your locations,” he said. “So all you have to do is reach out to that jurisdiction, bring on a new lawyer from it, and you’re up and running without the investments that traditional law firms have had to undergo.”

Another benefit of virtual law firms is the ability to have expanded practice areas, Lenon said. “Unfortunately for most solo and small law firms, the glass is always half-full when it comes to clients,” he said. “Normally a client will come to you with a single matter, and you’re able to help them, but often they’ll come with a matter outside of your specialty or your practice area, and traditionally you’ve had to refer those clients to another law firm, losing that business and maybe getting a referral fee.”

With virtual law firms, the technology allows you to go for a “glass half-full” scenario, where you bring in the tools and resources you need to handle an unexpected practice area by working with new lawyers or contract associates. “You’re keeping those clients and focusing on giving them a full-service law firm that you expand or contract as needed,” Lenon said.

Lower overhead and lower IT costs compared with traditional firms are two additional benefits, he said.

“With virtual law firms, real estate no longer matters,” Lenon said. “It enables you to reach out and speak to your clients from your home office, a rental space that you use on a per-needed basis or even meeting at their own locations but still taking the full tools and resources of your law firm with you.”

Virtual law firms also tend to use cloud-based services, which means “there’s no need to maintain expensive servers within an office space,” Lenon said.

A virtual firm also allows you to lower overhead when it comes to staffing, he said. “You’re able to reach out to not just clients but to employees in different locations, allowing you to take advantage of competent staff that you can engage on a part-time basis or on a full-time basis from a different area with a lower cost of living,” Lenon said.

Lastly, “incidentals” don’t tend to exist in virtual law firms because they use online tools, such as voice over IP for phone calls and emails with PDFs for sharing documents, Lenon said. “Instead, you’re saving money and you’re actually giving better customer service because you’re not charging for these incidentals,” he said.

Chad Burton, one of the founding attorneys of Burton Law, a virtual firm with lawyers in Ohio, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., said the way he operates is to “take the best of the large and small firm world, in which I’ve been a part of both, and be able to leverage the good things.”

For Burton, a virtual firm offers the solid technology base that larger firms are accustomed to but also the freedom to work remotely and in creative ways that small-firm lawyers know and appreciate.

Burton explained the programs that his firm uses: a system that integrates Google Apps, Box, Yammer and DirectLaw with Clio.

Box is the firm’s document management system that allows for internal and external collaboration. “There are features in Box where you can tag people in comments so your team members can see that a draft is ready to review,” Burton said. “There’s a task-assigning feature in Box. We also set up external shared client portals where we can share documents as well as receive documents.

“A good example is that I rarely, if ever, send an attachment to an email anymore,” he added. “Each Box document and folder has a unique link, and I will email that link, whether it’s to a client or to opposing counsel or whomever, and they can click on the link and download the document. It allows me to work very easily off my iPad and iPhone. It also creates access stats. If you email a document to opposing counsel and they say, ‘Hey, I didn’t get it,’ you can go back to the stats and see that … actually you did, according to your IP address on Oct. 29, you downloaded it at 2:22 p.m., and here’s the proof.”

Yammer serves an important purpose in the firm since everyone works in a remote or mobile nature, Burton said. “This is our water cooler,” he said. “This is where we share ideas for upcoming events and things that are not necessarily client-related but firm operations-related. The best way to describe it is a social enterprise network. It’s Facebook for our firm.”

DirectLaw also serves an important function within the firm, Burton said. He explained that the firm uses it for delivery of legal services to clients online. Clients choose the documents they’re interested in having an attorney develop and review, complete a questionnaire, pay with a credit card and fill out “all the forms that typically you would email off or handle during meetings.”

“Lawyers on our team can then review the documents, interact with the client either via telephone, Skype, electronic messaging, etc., and finalize the documents,” Burton said. “This is the unbundled concept. We’re not having a signing party with these clients at the end to finish an estate plan or business setup. The documents are sent back to the client with instructions on how to execute them, and they’re on their way.”

Burton said this portion of the business will be significant to future growth. “When we talk about moving the firm forward, we know the online delivery component is going to play a significant role because that’s where society is going — it’s going online, whether it’s banking, taxes, buying things,” he said. “People are looking at the legal industry in the same way.

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