Most of the virtual lawyers out there are basically providers of unbundled legal services leveraging technology to accomplish their goals. Sure, some do provide full representation but for the most part it’s not that way. In fact, the virtual law office technology that’s out there seems designed to accommodate the lawyer’s secret wish—a thriving law practice without those nagging clients. Have them fill out some forms online, communicate entirely through a nearly mystic portal, and the lawyer gets to generate work product from a beachside palapa.
But, of course, the point of technology isn’t how it fits the lawyer’s deep-seated desires. It’s how the technology can help both lawyers and their clients get the job done more effectively. Although if you can deliver legal services in a more effective manner while being free to work from nearly anywhere, well, that’s a bonus.
Thankfully, there’s a simple way to operate a full-service law firm without being tied to an office. A means not of going virtual, but of being untethered. And it doesn’t hinge on a fancy virtual law office portal or bank-breaking technology.
In fact, there are only a few things you need to operate an untethered law firm. I know because mine is untethered. It’s a two-partner firm with an associate and a paralegal—and here’s how we get it all done.
Reliable Means of Communication
A traditional office needs a phone, fax and email to communicate with the outside world. So, too, with the untethered law office.
For telephone service, I rely on Skype, so I can make and receive calls straight from my laptop. Using Skype Premium services ($53.88 per year) gives me unlimited phone calls to any number in the United States as well as video calling and a bunch of other features. For an extra $72 per year, I get a local number so people can call me as if I had a “real phone line.” Between the two, I spend less in a year than most people spend per month on a cell phone.
Need a receptionist to handle the incoming calls? No worries. I use Call Ruby, an excellent service that screens calls and patches them through to my line as I see fit. And for offices that have more than one person on staff, you can go with Grasshopper, a virtual PBX system that allows you to have a fully functional auto-attendant and tons of voice-mail boxes. When someone dials my extension, it trunks the call to a number of my choosing, and voicemails come to me by mp3.
Also, for those folks who still use faxing, I’ve got a solution: a fax-to-email service such as Maxemail or eFax. Either service will give you a local number for people to use as your fax line. Incoming faxes hit my email box in PDF, which means no scanning.
Now, email. I confess that I just don’t get the whole argument about its security. Whatever you do, email is not secure. The data is transmitted over unsecure Internet space, and someone with a mind to hack you is going to succeed. So, with that in mind, I use Google Apps for my email. They have better security than I could ever afford, I can get my email anywhere I’ve got an Internet connection, and the downtime is … well, infrequent to say the least. If it’s good enough for various governmental agencies, it’s good enough for me.
File Storage and Management
I’ve got one heck of a hard drive on my laptop, so I store my files there. I also use an external hard drive as well as a cloud-based system to back up files.
But I’m not the only one in my firm, and we’ve all got to have access to the documents that make up our client files. For that we use Dropbox, which synchronizes files among staff computers and also backs up to the cloud. Some folks have made noise about using Dropbox for client work, but I’m content in the knowledge that it uses Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and AES-256 bit encryption to transmit and store files. If that doesn’t work for you, then you can also go with a provider such as Box.net.
We also use a cloud-based practice management application for the firm, keeping track of time, messages and file-related updates. Again, it’s available when and where we need it to be, and we never need to worry about backing up our servers.
A Place for Client Meetings
While my partner works from a physical office space, I don’t—but I still need to have meetings with my clients. I usually confer with clients by phone to begin, and I record all of my Skype calls (with consent, of course) so I can store them for better recordkeeping.
But sometimes, you need that face-to-face so you can work more closely. Some lawyers love Starbucks for client meetings, but that’s not my style. Instead, I look to the courthouse and colleagues. Most courthouses have lawyer conference rooms that are free to use. Many bar associations allow members to use their facilities, too. And if all else fails, a colleague can let you use a conference room.
But if you’re really looking for a place to call home base, look at some of the executive centers like Regus. Rent space for a few hours a month and see how it works out.
Staff Communications within the Firm
In addition to our paralegal and associate, we have a few virtual assistants who pitch in when needed. We have our virtual assistants as a result of hiring through eLance and similar sites. And interestingly, our associate found us as a result of a job ad we posted on Facebook. The logic was simple: We wanted someone who was facile with technology, and where better to go than a site of 700 million technologically adept people?
But regardless of who’re we hiring, once someone’s on the team, we communicate relentlessly.
Each morning I get on Skype with my associate and paralegal to review outstanding issues and plans for the upcoming days. We swap stories and notes and discuss challenges. Then we solve them. Just like in a real staff meeting. From there, we chat a few times each day using Google Talk or Skype. It’s all a casual back-and-forth, allowing us to keep a virtual watercooler going while we get the job done.
We’ve also got a firm wiki, a central repository of what I call “dangling knowledge”—passwords, procedures and the like. The wiki resides on our web server behind a username and password combination that we change regularly for added security.
What Life Looks Like for an Untethered Lawyer
Our firm’s clients know that we’re mobile, and they never need to sit idly by as we go on vacation. My staff has the ability to work from home, attending to family and personal needs as they see fit. Work and life mesh nicely, allowing us to live our lives freely.
Moreover, with the exception of my partner’s office spot, we’ve got no physical overhead. Our phone system costs a fraction of what a land-bound firm will spend each month, and our paper bill is so much lower now that we don’t need to refill the fax and copier machines.
Rather than having to spend time in a car or on the subway for a few hours each day, I can choose to use those ticks of the clock working or spending time with my family. I invariably choose the latter when I can, but when duty calls I know I can opt for the former without hassle.