For years, the practice of law was grounded in impressive, wood-paneled offices with volumes of stately court reporter books lining the halls. We spent umpteen hours per day and per year ensconced in theses office, churning out briefs, preparing for trial, or drafting contracts. The courthouse was right next door or just down the street, allowing pleadings to be promptly filed and requiring just a short walk to attend a hearing. We needed our Dictaphone, secretary, and copy room staff to maintain files and complete our correspondence. Our clients came to our offices for meetings, and we had the grand lobby to ensure them of our quality, diligence, and value.
And then, life changed. First was the fax machine. The review of documents could occur as quickly as the thermal paper printer could chug out its sheets. Computers began appearing on every desk, even the attorney’s. Then the Internet took shape, and the pace of change accelerated. The website became a primary portal for prospective clients to learn about our quality and value. Courts began accepting, and later requiring, electronic filing of pleadings. The frequency of court appearances declined as agreed and unopposed orders could be submitted online. Research was accomplished more efficiently online, while our court reporter volumes started gathering dust. Technology continued to advance, with laptops, then Palm Pilots, BlackBerries, and iPhones helping us organize our calendars and keep in constant contact.
About four years ago, this change in the nature of practice became clear to me. I realized I was driving nearly 20 miles into the city each morning with a snarly attitude through awful rush-hour traffic to go to my office, turn on the computer, and wait for the phone to ring. My practice had evolved to include only occasional court appearances, and the majority of my interaction with clients was via phone and e-mail. I was paying rent and exorbitant monthly parking fees for the luxury of sitting in a wood-paneled office. I had to ask myself whether these expenses and the commute aggravations were really worth the value of having a prestigious downtown address. My answer was no, and I went virtual.
What Is a Virtual Office?
A virtual office can be any of a number of arrangements that takes the lawyer outside of the traditional law office format. Given the technology options available, all one really needs is a computer to have a virtual office. The computer provides the means to communicate (whether by e-mail, fax, or videoconference), prepare documents, conduct legal research, and maintain a presence on the Internet. If this computer is a laptop, mobility is built in, even if on the beach in Hawaii.
I frequently use my laptop in client meetings to connect remotely to my office computer, whether to access a document or monitor e-mail. One benefit of connecting remotely is that no client files are stored on my laptop, should it be lost or stolen. There are several remote access software programs to choose from, such as LogMeIn, TeamViewer, and PCNow, just to name a few. In our mobile and increasingly connected society, a laptop or other mobile computer is critical to the success of any virtual office arrangement.
For my new office arrangement, I chose to work primarily from a home office with an executive suites office for my business address, contacts, and client meetings. There are many reasons why I find this arrangement desirable. Maintaining the privacy of my home was one of my considerations. This can be especially important in practice areas involving volatile or potentially dangerous clients. I also value the availability of a receptionist to receive documents or deliveries.
The most basic executive office services provide a business address for mail and deliveries. Vendors in my area provide this service for as little as $50 per month. Overnight or courier deliveries can be made all day at the executive office address, even if the attorney is occupied on other matters, off-site, or at court. The executive office notifies you if a document has been delivered, and you only need to stop by the executive office on these occasions.
For slightly more per month, the lawyer can also have the executive office personnel answer the lawyer’s business phone with the firm name. Calls are forwarded to the home phone or cell phone of the attorney, as agreed to in advance. Clients encounter a professional receptionist who can answer basic questions (such as providing the fax number). Several colleagues who utilize a virtual receptionist for phone calls are pleased by the time savings of having initial contact and simple questions handled by a third party.
Beyond mail and phone services, the executive office can provide a professional location to meet with clients, as compared to one’s home or Starbucks. For example, the executive office with whom I work maintains several conference rooms and offices in their building that are rented by the hour. When I have a client meeting, I simply reserve the conference room with the size I need and pay a small hourly rate; it is much more economical than maintaining a regular office all month. My clients are welcomed into a professional and comfortable office or conference room. This also maintains safety and security for me and my family—I am not inviting a new, unknown client into my home.
Of course, executive office suites are not the only option for keeping client meetings out of your home. One of my colleagues who operates a virtual office with a web presence conducts meetings exclusively in his clients’ places of business—the arrangement is somewhat akin to house calls by physicians of years past.
Arrangements for staff are an important issue when a solo or small firm makes the decision to work virtually. For many it can be a stumbling block, but with the appropriate personnel and careful, creative use of technology, working with your staff remotely can be successful. Certainly, you can no longer hand your secretary a Dictaphone tape. But you can use a digital audio file and voice recognition software to produce the initial draft and e-mail that to the secretary for editing. Many staff members in larger firms are working from home one or more days per week, and given the technology available, there is no bar to small firms or solos making similar arrangements. Utilizing a VPN (virtual private network) or other secure means of communication, pleadings and other documents can be drafted, edited, and shared even if your assistants are also working off-site in their own location. For those with only occasional need for secretarial or administrative help, executive offices often make administrative staff available on an hourly basis. Another mode becoming increasingly common outside the legal industry is the virtual assistant. An Internet search for “virtual assistants” reveals scores of businesses and individuals offering these services and links to local trade associations. An example of one such company in the Seattle area is Your Team Players, Inc. They offer online administrative support for tracking case-loads, calendars, billing, blog writing, and client support, just to name a few services likely to be used by a lawyer.
Why a Virtual Office?
There are many benefits in choosing a virtual office—financial, environmental, and time management, to name just a few. For me, one of the most important benefits was work/life balance. Maintaining balance in all aspects of one’s life leads to a happier, healthier, and more satisfying life. In our chosen career, however, work often overrides other aspects of our lives. When I added a long commute to the long days at the office, I realized I was gripping the steering wheel too tightly and becoming far too expressive in the comments yelled at other drivers (don’t worry, no one else could hear—except once when I forgot the cellphone was on, but that’s another story).
Working virtually has made my practice more enjoyable. My home office is actually much larger than the downtown office and has a more pleasant view. I dress more comfortably and save my suits for meetings or court. I put less wear and tear on my car—some days I don’t even start it. I begin working earlier in the morning, but I also finish earlier because I am not sitting in traffic irritated with other drivers. I have more time to spend with my family and less resentment at trudging to the office every day. Remarkably, not a single client left my firm owing to the virtual move. The technological connections to my clients through phone and e-mail worked seamlessly, and my practice continued uninterrupted. As an unexpected bonus, I was soon contacted by potential clients located in my suburb who did not wish to travel downtown.
Reducing a practice’s overhead costs can also be an important factor in the decision to work virtually. Lawyers are dedicated to the work product we produce, sometimes to the point of ignoring the fact that our firms are also businesses that must make money and pay expenses. Buried in work, we easily lose track of the financial health of the firm. Ann M. Guinn, in her excellent law practice management book Minding Your Own Business (ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division, 2010), dedicates an entire chapter to the importance of analyzing and understanding the finances of a small or solo firm. Whether it is the rate at which you receive payment for services or whether your overhead and income are out of sync, she provides tools to take a fresh look at a firm’s financial health, beyond just how many dollars are in the firm’s operating account. In analyzing the financial position of your practice, it is important to understand where shortfalls exist—income shortfalls or overhead reductions that could benefit your bottom line. In my situation, my costs for the virtual office and conference rentals have averaged less than one-tenth of what I used to pay for rent and parking in the city. I’m happier, healthier, and wealthier. What’s not to like?
As with most things in life, however, there are some drawbacks to working virtually. There can be a sense of isolation from other attorneys. You cannot walk down the hall to chat or have a spur-of-the-moment lunch break with a colleague. But, as with any solo or small firm practice, a feeling of isolation can be resolved in creative ways by developing a network of colleagues, joining and attending meetings of your local bar’s practice area or solo firm sections, and keeping in contact with colleagues, even if just with an occasional phone call. With a small effort, you can keep connected and still enjoy the collegial feeling that one finds in a firm.
Without a separate office, work can always be nagging, especially when you must pass the home office to walk out the door. Knowing your own habits and tendencies surrounding work are critical in managing a virtual office. Some attorneys practicing in a virtual office set regular office hours during which they work and after which they are off work, just as if they had gone home from the office. Others always dress for the office when they are working to help them focus. Virtual attorneys need to be in touch with their habits and find their own methods of managing their practice that work best for them.
Another potential drawback can be a shift in calendaring and scheduling. Whether it is a client meeting or going to court, the virtual attorney must plan ahead. Clients cannot drop by for an unscheduled visit, so scheduling of appointments takes on a greater significance. Depending on the location, schedules may need to take travel time into account. Because I live in a suburb, my calendar now includes not only the appointment time and location but a second, separate appointment labeled “travel” that is scheduled immediately prior to the hearing or client meeting and is calculated based on the expected travel time to the location. This ensures I have sufficient time to reach my destination or travel from one appointment to another. Depending on the nature of one’s practice and volume of appointments or hearings, travel time can be a significant consideration in the choice to work in a virtual manner.
Is a Virtual Office Right for You?
A virtual office is not right for every attorney or every practice. Each attorney must critically review his or her own practice—and personal tendencies—to determine if a virtual office is the right choice.
The nature of each practice varies greatly. Trial lawyers representing tort victims and transactional attorneys working primarily with businesses have very different practice needs. Knowing your practice’s requirements will help shape the feasibility of a virtual office. How often do you need to be in court? How many clients do you see on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis? Will an Internet presence without a formal office be sufficient to continue marketing your firm to your target clients? Do you employ staff, and are they candidates for working remotely? Do you have sufficient technology support and knowledge to establish a more technology-dependent practice? Locating good, experienced technology support can be critical in organizing a virtual office.
Even without a traditional office, you will still need to complete your work at some physical location. Do you have a space in your home to dedicate to an office? Or will you work on your laptop at various locations, depending on your schedule? Will your location allow you to maintain client confidentiality of your files and computer? Will you scan all files or utilize more traditional paper files? Where will these files be securely stored (whether electronically or physically)?
Understanding and honestly reflecting on your own work habits can also help determine the success of your virtual venture. Can you work independently, or do you need the social interaction of walking down the hall to a colleague’s office? Are you focused enough to work from home, or will you be distracted by the piles of laundry, dirty dishes, or other family members? Will you be able to stop working at the end of the day or on the weekends, or will your client files always be calling to you? Discipline and focus are sometimes needed to maintain the good work/life balance toward which a virtual lawyer strives. (For other considerations when deciding whether a home-based virtual office is right for you, see the multipart article “Working from Home” in the October/November 2011 issue of GPSolo magazine)
Working in a virtual office is a new and creative way to approach the practice of law. In recent years, other professionals and small businesses have discovered the benefits of a virtual office, and now lawyers are doing so in greater numbers. A virtual office embraces advances in technology, keeping our practices relevant to our clients’ experiences and issues. It can promote financial responsibility and the reduction of our carbon footprint by reducing overhead and eliminating commutes. And it can help lawyers find the balance between work and life. For me, the virtual office has led to greater satisfaction with my practice and far fewer angry tirades at the rush-hour traffic. Maybe it can for you, too.