Leading the Virtual Firm

Volume 37 Number 5

By

Karen MacKay is President of the consultancy Phoenix Legal Inc., focusing her work on leadership and strategy execution for law firms.

Virtual lawyering sounds great. The independence, the low overhead, the telephone meetings in sweats. But perhaps your practice requires collaboration with other virtual lawyers. Or maybe you want to keep some collegiality and skip the isolation by creating an entire virtual firm—a handful of team players virtually connected to each other and their clients. Plenty of professionals—including a growing number of lawyers—are doing just that. Of course, any time two or more gather together, even virtually, there is managing to be done. Issues arise. Decisions must be made. There are interpersonal dynamics to be managed. Here are some tips for leading a virtual firm.

Get to know each other up front. Professionals are attracted to virtual firms in part because they can create and direct their own lives, but the autonomy also demands a shared commitment to work effectively together. To build that commitment, invest time up front to get to know each member of the team—the whole person. Make certain you agree to uniform client service standards as well.

Share work. A virtual firm typically values people for what they do best, but if you are not willing to develop and share business within the firm, leading will be difficult. Plus, just as in any firm, new business must be developed not only for profitability, but also so that your professionals have the opportunity to get better at what they do.

Provide coordinated technology. Technology is especially critical to supporting your team when you can't just walk down the hall to fix something or discuss a high-priority document in person. You need technology that enables full communication between and among team members that is available wherever team members are and whenever they need it.

Pay fairly. You have to figure out a compensation model that makes the money issue a non-issue. And be consistent—side deals and different compensation packages will come back to haunt you even in the virtual world.

No Carrots, No Sticks. Generally, the professionals in virtual firms want to set their own targets. So talk with each member of your team regularly to find out what they want to achieve this year, this quarter, this month. Work closely with them to map it out, and then get out of their way.

Be clear about Values. Core values are different for every organization. Be clear about what they are for you and this firm, and then give examples of what they mean to your team members. When tension or conflict arises (and it will) go back to your values and use that lens to sort things out.

Create Glue. Consider sending a daily email update about current work and client issues to all members of the team. Get together in person from time to time to nurture the sense of having colleagues. Do things together for fun aswell as for work.

Virtual firms can attract talented professionals committed to excellence as well as to creating the life they want. But to ensure that it works, leadership is required, just like in a brick-and-mortar firm.

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