This article is the second of four installments, designed to provide insight into operating a virtual law firm.
- What type of networking structure should a virtual law firm adopt?
- How can remote staff most effectively use technology to work together efficiently?
Although this is probably difficult for many younger lawyers to imagine, I, along with the vast majority of my law school classmates, graduated from law school in 1987 without ever using a computer. I considered myself to be fairly technologically savvy by rejecting a typewriter in favor of a new word processor, specifically a “speedy” Brother WP-500 that allowed me to save my documents onto 3.5" discs.
In 1987, I could not have successfully operated a virtual law firm using the technology at hand. Thankfully, now I can. In 2014, technology plays a pivotal role in enabling a virtual law firm to effectively compete with a brick-and-mortar firm.
Tip #1: Select the Right Networking Structure
Telecommuting involves the ability to perform office tasks without actually being in the office. A telecommuter can connect remotely to an office computer or network and use it just as if she were sitting at her desk. A virtual law firm adopts the concept of permanent telecommuting. My staff, consisting primarily of an office administrator, two of counsel attorneys, and a paralegal, does all of its work remotely. In establishing a virtual law firm, an initial decision must be made regarding the best networking structure for your specific staff configuration. I’ve utilized two approaches, both of which are fairly common.
First, the server model: staff can connect their remote computers through a VPN (virtual private network) to the main office network stored on a server. Second, the headless work station model: because my staff doesn’t work in my home, I do not need to provide them with a desk, monitor, keyboard, or mouse. Instead, each person connects their remote computer to a second, individually dedicated computer, which in turn is connected to a server.
I originally chose the server model, but last year I switched to headless work stations due to the lower costs, decreased maintenance requirements, and easier implementation of a standard set of software. The footprint of each headless work station is smaller than a breadbox. Thankfully, a stack of these small computers along with a server can easily fit into a closet located in my home office. Common software programs are installed on each computer, and networked through the server. Thus far, I’m thrilled with the stability, cost, and ease of the new setup. With a larger staff, storage of the work stations would become an issue, but with my small staff, this model serves me well.
Tip #2: Choose to Go Paperless
As mentioned in my first article, I maintain a nearby private mail box so that my home address is not associated with my law firm. In a typical day, my office mail might include a few checks from clients and several probate pleadings that need to be filed with our local superior court. In a brick-and-mortar firm, the secretary or receptionist handles each piece of paper pursuant to standard office procedures. A virtual firm is no different, except that I’m unable to walk into my administrator’s office and hand her checks to deposit, and then walk into my paralegal’s office and give her the pleadings to be filed. Many solo and small firm practitioners are moving to a paperless model, but a virtual law firm must embrace it from the onset. Unless a document is digital, your remote staff will have no way to work with that document. Furthermore, most attorneys do not want their home to be slowly taken over by expanding client files. Scanning and shredding paper is a daily, essential part of operating a virtual law firm. I could not live without my quick and reliable Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 scanner. As a virtual lawyer processing the mail, I scan in any documents and then ask my office administrator to deposit the checks via an online service, and similarly ask my paralegal to efile the probate pleadings. Then, I input the mail record confirming receipt of the probate pleading into the digital client file by using case management software.
Tip #3: Rely on Case Management Software
A virtual law firm with staff cannot effectively operate without using case management software. My office uses Time Matters and the accompanying Billing Matters program. In a brick-and-mortar law firm, staff will personally communicate about dozens of daily issues, ranging from the attorneys’ substantive collaboration on a client matter to a request for more paper clips. Case management software provides a virtual law firm with an efficient way to manage these ongoing communications, so as to avoid getting lost in a tangled nightmare of countless email messages, phone calls, and text messages. Time Matters creates a structure for storing digital client files that accommodates all documents, email, contact records, telephone records (including mp3 files of voice mail messages), mail receipt records, billing records, outstanding tasks, calendar items, and notes involving research and collaboration. Time Matters also provides an internal messengering system, file triggers to track key recurring tasks, and document generation for your firm’s templates; additionally, the most recent version provides an online client web portal. Other brands of case management software provide a varying array of features that might uniquely benefit your virtual model. Case management software provides the cornerstone for enabling staff to work seamlessly in a remote environment, while creating significant time-saving advantages.
Tip #4: Embrace Mobile Technology
To a much greater degree than in a brick-and-mortar law firm, most attorneys and staff choosing to work virtually will not be tied to their desks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For example, on any given work day my office administrator could be watching her daughter’s soccer game, waiting at the car dealership while her car is getting fixed, or visiting family in California. Although I (usually!) know where she is, our clients and other parties with whom she interacts have no knowledge of her physical location. She continually relies on her smartphone, which contains a Time Matters mobile application, and other mobile computing devices in order to do her job. All attorneys and staff who work virtually need to be fully comfortable with smartphones, laptops, and tablets, and willing to use them daily, to create the most appealing options for work-life management while enhancing responsiveness to clients and speedy interoffice communications.
Some virtual lawyers create the illusion that they run their law firms from a physical office, due to fears that they may lose clients as a result of their office setup. On the contrary, in 2014, a well-run virtual law office supported by a solid technological infrastructure will actually attract many potential clients because of the creativity and innovation involved. Invest wisely, from the beginning, in quality equipment and software that supports your firm’s business model, and then be eager to explain to your clients how these investments in technology make you the best lawyer for the job.