Managing a Virtual Law Firm

Volume 39 Number 2

By

About the Author

Chad E. Burton is the founding attorney and principal of Burton Law, a virtual law firm with lawyers in Ohio, North Carolina, and Washington, DC He also serves as outside general counsel for privately held businesses.

Law Practice Magazine | March/April 2013 | The ABA TECHSHOW IssueAt times, a person who chooses to manage a team of lawyers may need to do a sanity check. We all know that law school is challenging enough, and being a lawyer comes with more stress than most professions. Taking the everyday challenges of practicing law then adding management responsibilities to that takes things to a whole other level. Why is it so difficult? Well, frankly, because we are talking about leading lawyers.

One of the defining personality traits of many lawyers is that they are strong-willed. This obviously helps serve clients well in pursuing causes that others may not take up in the name of justice (or some other hopefully valid reason). Yet some lawyers argue that so many solo and small firms exist because lawyers, in general, do not work well with others. Clearly, having control of one’s domain in the workplace has significant value for many lawyers. So those who lead groups of lawyers must be extraordinarily vigilant in how they fulfill their roles.

Managing virtual law firms creates interesting challenges and opportunities that must be faced head-on. Multilawyer virtual firms seem to be popping up left and right, and most have creative management models. On the one hand, leading virtual firms requires many of the same responsibilities and skills as do traditional firms, such as managing the financial aspects of the firm and focusing on client service. However, the very nature of virtual law firms—where the lawyers work in distributed locations outside a traditional brick and mortar setting—adds additional opportunities and challenges. Because the concept and label of virtual firms seem to fall under the “hot topic” rubric for practice management, let us take a deeper look at the best practices associated with these firms.

Regardless of any label placed on a law firm, every model must be based upon serving its clients. If the firm leadership loses sight of this purpose, problems will likely ensue, and what would otherwise be a structured system will fall into disorganization. This holds just as true for virtual firms. Thus, virtual firm leaders must maintain focus on who are they serving and how are they doing it. Once the client base (i.e., the “who”) is identified by the virtual firm, the “how” of serving that base becomes the everyday challenge. Executing the management of an effective virtual team of lawyers therefore involves two intertwined concepts: the human element and the technological support.

THE HUMAN ELEMENT

This is about culture. The virtual firm’s leadership must figure out what the culture will look like. Law firms historically have culture problems that nowadays become viral sensations through angry partner memos, accounts of beaten-down associates and the like. By definition, virtual firms operate outside the norm and often include lawyers who want and expect a different experience. While some virtual firms perform more as a branded network, where the lawyers exist primarily in isolated silos, a better approach is to create a culture of collaboration. This is harder to pull off, but it can better serve the firm’s clients.

Listed below are the key leadership issues for managing a virtual firm with a culture of collaboration.

  • Not every lawyer is cut out to have the freedom of working outside of a traditional office environment. When recruiting the team, one must create the profile of what type of person and lawyer will fit within the firm’s culture. Warm bodies just to add lawyer profiles on a website can create more harm than good. Be strategic.
  • Foster trust among the team. When working in a distributed manner, the element of trust is even more important. The leaders must make sure that the brand is protected and properly demonstrated to the public by the team members.
  • Communication is critical. Effective communication helps foster the necessary trust among team members. In a virtual environment, walking to the office down the hall to see how things are going is not possible. The expectation in the culture must be that overcommunicating within the team is a component of success. If the leaders expect this from others, they must demonstrate it themselves with timely responses.
  • Be social. Even if everyone does not regularly work under the same roof, this does not mean “getting together” cannot occur in other ways. Where possible, in-person collaboration sessions are good, as are regular telephone or videoconference calls to keep the team communicating and sharing ideas. Happy hours do not hurt, either.
  • Create policies and procedures. Direction is helpful. One of the benefits of virtual teams is that their distributed nature allows the lawyers to focus on work and avoid the distractions of the office. A well-developed set of procedures will easily answer questions on how something should be done and will create uniformity throughout the team. If everyone is following the same path administratively, it reduces the possible chaos that could result in a distributed work environment. (Note that the entry about trust, above, is closely tied to this point.)
  • Get help. As with a traditional firm, the leaders of a virtual team need support. This means contracting with a virtual assistant service, hiring an operations person, team or both. In theory, the leader of a virtual firm embraces innovation, so the more time that person spends on the vision of the firm and serving the clients, the better.
  • Provide training. It is one thing to come up with new ideas or concepts for advancing a virtual team; it is another to actually make it happen. The team must be brought up to speed on the functionality and expectations of the firm. Also, if the makeup of a team warrants it, substantive law training should be provided.
  • Invite feedback and ideas to move the firm forward. Not every concept that the leadership of a firm rolls out will work. There is always room for improvement, both in structure and in the development of leadership skills. Lawyers tend to form opinions on how their firm is functioning (this may be a huge understatement). So ask for the team’s feedback and learn from it.

THE TECHNOLOGY

To nurture a culture of collaboration in virtual firms, the leadership cannot ignore the opportunities and challenges that technology creates. Choosing technology with some thought will help achieve the points on building the team, described above. Listed below are some helpful practices to implement.

  • Centralize the firm’s knowledge base. This means using a cloud-based practice management platform, such as Clio or DirectLaw, so that all members of the firm can gain access to firm information from wherever they are working. As the organization grows, centralized document management systems, such as Box or NetDocuments, are crucial for collaborating on client work. The policies and procedures discussed above will create uniformity on how these platforms are used.
  • Make communicating easy. With team members spread across zip codes and states, remaining connected is important when face-to-face interaction is not feasible on a daily basis. The tools are endless: Skype, Google+ Hangout, FaceTime, Gmail Chat, text messaging, etc. Oh yeah, the telephone and email work, too.
  • Use other collaborative tools. To really step up communication, consider using a tool such as Yammer, Salesforce’s Chatter or 37signals’ Campfire. These tools provide real-time online conversations and help users reduce the unending flow of email.
  • Avoid the shiny-object syndrome. It is tough. With so many new gadgets, software platforms and apps rolling out on a weekly basis, it is easy to get sidetracked with trying the latest and greatest. It’s the leadership’s job to weed out the technological noise and implement the product that is best for the firm’s culture.
  • Remember those little ethics rules. While the coolest platform may seem like a good fit for a virtual team, the leaders must make sure that the platforms used adequately preserve confidential information. This goes a step further with the use of mobile devices on a distributed team. Again, policies and procedures will set the tone and protect the firm’s information. The lists above only scratch the surface of what virtual firm leadership must consider. Every team will have a different culture. While there are endless ways to create and manage a firm’s culture, the key is making sure the clients’ best interests are always a key part of the equation. If a concept does not help serve the clients, then it needs to go.

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