- What unique issues should a virtual law firm expect to address in meeting its staffing needs?
- How can remote staff most effectively communicate as a team?
Since opening my virtual law firm in 1999, I’ve found that, more than any other component of running a small business, developing an effective virtual team has proved challenging. After many mistakes and hard-learned lessons, along with some sleepless nights and occasional painful dramas, my current remote team consistently achieves high marks. Each person fulfills a defined function on our team and contributes positively to the team’s collaboration, work flow, and perhaps most importantly, strong sense of collegiality and commitment despite the lack of daily in-person communication.
My remote team currently consists of an office administrator, administrative assistant, paralegal, and two of counsel attorneys. I am the only full-time member of the team (and, as anyone who manages a small law firm knows, the term “full-time” generally extends well beyond a standard 40-hour work week!). My office administrator and administrative assistant job share one full-time administrative position. My paralegal and one of counsel attorney work half time, and the second of counsel attorney works one quarter time. Each member of my team chooses her own unique work schedule based on her individual life circumstances, including additional work commitments, family commitments, personal interests, and time spent giving back to the community. Although previously I’ve had male team members and worked with team members from out-of-state, my current team is all female and local to the Seattle area.
Tip #1: Recognize the Uniqueness of the Virtual Model
To illustrate the nuances of staffing a virtual business, let me present two imaginary workers: Joe Average and Vanda Virtual.
Joe Average, a worker in a brick-and-mortar law firm, typically arrives at his nine-to-five job each Monday morning wearing an appropriate business-casual outfit. Joe greets the receptionist, several attorneys, and his secretary on his way to the break room to pour his daily cup of coffee. They exchange humorous stories about their weekend activities, and also discuss several significant work issues that they’ll be facing over the coming week. During the day, Joe personally interacts with his coworkers numerous times on both a personal and professional level, including attending several in-person meetings and enjoying lunch with a colleague. He leaves his office at approximately five o’clock, dreading his one-hour commute but looking forward to dinner with his family and a good night’s rest.
Vanda Virtual, a worker in a virtual law office, enjoys her work and loves her second job as the lead singer for the Seattle band Meat Market Surfers. She spends about 20 hours a week with the band including rehearsals, road trips, and late-night gigs. Each Monday morning, Vanda usually wakes up at about 10 a.m. She eats breakfast, exercises, showers, and then by 1 p.m. is ready to go to work. Wearing ripped jeans and a gray T-shirt, Vanda opens the door to the spare bedroom that serves as her office, and settles in for a six-hour workday. By 7 p.m., Vanda needs to sign off so she can make it to the band’s evening rehearsal.
In all likelihood, if Joe Average worked in a virtual environment, he would feel isolated and miss the daily routine and personal interaction with his colleagues. And, in all probability, if Vanda Virtual worked in a traditional brick-and-mortar job, she would feel confined due to her long commute, set hours, professional dress requirements, and the fact that her lifestyle significantly contrasts with that of her coworkers.
Of course, in real life, the lines between Joe Average and Vanda Virtual tend to be blurred and often difficult to discern. In order to develop an effective virtual team, you need to recognize that a virtual workplace contrasts dramatically with a brick-and-mortar office. Many candidates who may seem ideal on paper will simply wither and die in a virtual environment. Others will blossom. As a law firm owner, in addition to spending the time to ensure that potential team members possess the requisite skill sets, you need to spend an equal amount of time determining, to the best of your ability, whether the applicant can successfully transition to and thrive within a virtual environment.
Tip #2: Make the Talent Pool Work in Your Favor
The second of counsel attorney to join my team, Sherry Bosse Lueders, boasts a highly competitive resume including having attended superior schools, earned top grades, and successfully completed her clerkship with a highly respected King County Superior Court judge. Sherry participates significantly in various bar groups and stands committed to providing pro bono services. Sherry also enjoys her role as parent of her two-year-old son and found that the strenuous billable requirements and the need for physical presence (a.k.a. “face time”) imposed by most Seattle brick-and-mortar law firms stifled her ability to fully engage as a parent. Recognizing the dearth of part-time law jobs in Seattle, Sherry took the initiative of starting her own law firm and spent a year gaining additional legal skills and business acumen prior to becoming a part of my team.
Every member of my team offers a different version of the same story. Each is a highly talented and attractive candidate—the type of person that most brick-and-mortar law firms would covet. However, for various reasons, including but not limited to parenting responsibilities, each team member thrives best in a virtual environment because of the opportunities afforded to achieve professional success while realizing other meaningful personal goals. By allowing people to work virtually, and according them flexibility in choosing a part-time work schedule, a virtual law firm often has its pick of the region’s top talents.
Tip #3: Create Communication Structures
Once your virtual team is in place, how does it become a “team”? Because by definition you will not personally meet with them on a daily basis to discuss work, you will need to establish communication structures that will enable your team to collaborate effectively within a virtual environment. My office has established the following channels of communication:
- Each day, when either of my of counsel attorneys begins her work, we briefly communicate via Time Matters Messenger, an instant chat tool, about the day’s work priorities.
- Each Monday afternoon, the three attorneys in my office participate in a half-hour teleconference to discuss the client files.
- Each Wednesday morning, I personally meet with the office administrator for a 15-minute “exchange.” We briefly discuss the upcoming needs of the office, and then she brings documents for my signature, picks up various items that need to be mailed, scanned in, sorted out, etc.
- Each Friday, I send out a team email outlining the week’s successes and opportunities for improvement. The email also informs the team of various deadlines for the following week. This weekly email keeps my team informed, in a holistic sense, about firm activities.
- Each quarter, I speak with each team member individually, either in person or by telephone, to provide feedback on work performance and to listen to their perspectives regarding workload, schedules, and ideas for enhancing the firm as well as their own sense of professional fulfillment.
Tip #4: Promote In-Person Team Building
Because my team members all reside in the Seattle area, we meet as a group several times a year to personally connect and share a meal. In addition, I truly appreciate having my team members and their spouses attend the annual auction for the nonprofit Tennis Outreach Programs in support of my work on its board of directors. These in-person activities create a sense of camaraderie and trust, and help us to work together positively and collaboratively.
In creating and maintaining a virtual office team, you should expect to work a little harder and apply much more creativity than you would in setting up an office staff for a brick-and-mortar law firm, but you can also expect to reap the rewards of cherry-picking highly talented workers and seeing those individuals thrive within the flexibility and independence offered by your firm.