February 01, 2021 The law office of the future

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, law firms are starting to embrace virtual offices—but will it last?

By Danielle Braff
Blame it on the pandemic. Law offices throughout the country are finally tiptoeing into the virtual world.

Blame it on the pandemic. Law offices throughout the country are finally tiptoeing into the virtual world.

Photo illustration by Sara Wadford / ABA Journal

Blame it on the pandemic. Law offices throughout the country are finally tiptoeing into the virtual world.

For most professions, this is nothing new: More than half of professionals worked remotely at least half the week before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March, according to International Workplace Group research. But law firms always do things at their own pace. According to the 2019 ABA TechReport, roughly 70% to 90% of law firms across all sizes—other than solo firms—primarily utilized traditional office spaces. For solo firms, approximately one-third were home-based.

By early April, 48% of law firms started working totally remotely, and only 12% remained in their offices (the remainder did a mix), according to a survey by the practice management company MyCase.

Some have even ditched physical offices altogether and don’t plan on returning to the traditional setting again. But before contacting your landlord, you need to consider how this will affect clients—and whether there really is a need for your law firm to have a physical office.

Danielson Law Firm closed its Arkansas offices March 12 and planned to remain closed to the public until there is either a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases, a vaccine or another significant development. In order to continue working, it has weekly conference calls with the entire office staff to assign tasks and track progress on projects or cases.

“As long as everyone is on task and remains productive, we don’t really dictate how they spend their day if they are available in the event of an emergency or if something urgent is needed,” says Erik Danielson, founder and owner of the firm.

While Danielson Law Firm had the capability to work remotely prior to the pandemic, it has homed in on ways to do it more efficiently now, such as having the phone systems rerouted to individual cellphones and switching the focus from just being in the office for a certain number of hours a day to tracking deliverables and progress.

Still, the pressure is on to maintain monthly monetary collections, says Amy Howard, a partner with Ascension Law, a midsize firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We just know that in order for the firm to keep running in the manner that it does, we each have a role in billing and collecting legal fees from our clients.”

Her firm made the decision to work remotely, and Howard says there’s pressure on the partners and associates to maintain monthly collections while homeschooling, helping with e-learning and working remotely. The firm has semiweekly meetings through Zoom to keep in touch, and Howard says although the firm is trying to be flexible, it’s a tricky situation.

The attorneys and staff have come up with creative solutions to balance the responsibilities of making their monthly collections while working remotely and handling online learning, she says. Some of the administrative staff have a hybrid schedule, working in the office a few days a week and working remotely the other days so they can assist their children with online learning. Others have self-motivated teenagers who don’t need as much help, Howard says. Many of the attorneys have been able to return to the office since some private schools are in-person, and day care centers have reopened.

“The business is still there, it is just finding a way to maintain monthly collections and the challenges COVID has created,” Howard says. “Sometimes, that means working after normal business hours and on weekends.”

Whither the physical office?

Meanwhile, for some firms that had already gone completely virtual even before the pandemic hit, COVID-19 has strengthened their resolve not to have physical offices.

Victoria Clark, founder and managing attorney of Clark Law in Washington, D.C., is one of them. Her firm, which consists of three employees, is completely virtual. Clark says she loves being virtual because it saves time and it’s convenient. “As far as I’ve seen, most clients are happy with virtual law firms,” she says. “With lower overhead, clients enjoy lower fees.” The clients also don’t have to leave home and search for parking—and they’ve done well with adapting to technology and paperless transactions, Clark says.

There are some downsides to being totally virtual, though. Clark says it’s hard to establish a team culture and face-to-face relationships, and it’s difficult to judge the efficiency of workers who are at home with potential distractions.

Robert Elwood, the Philadelphia-based co-founder and partner of the virtual law firm Practus, echoed similar issues. Since his partners are spread across the country, the firm has to work harder to create the sense of team and community that comes naturally from having people in an office. They have regular team meetings on substantive topics as well as having virtual happy hours and other events.

Plus, not all clients may be as pleased with the virtual setup as the firms may be. Andrew Shaw, managing attorney of Shaw Divorce & Family Law in New Jersey, says that after the pandemic subsides, he anticipates some small and midsize firms in consumer-focused areas of the law will not return to physical offices—and that may be OK. But larger firms courting wealthy corporate clients who expect and demand a certain level of service will quickly return to their downtown high-rises. The same will be true of firms with leaders who are uncomfortable with new technologies, Shaw says.

That’s why some offices are doing a hybrid model. Tracey Ingle of Ingle Law in Southborough, Massachusetts, has been doing in-person and virtual law for a few years. One of the downsides is that it’s still new by industry standards, and depending on the area of law and the clientele, it can be hard to get clients or partners on board, Ingle says.

Going virtual also means really trusting the team. “Productivity is now measured by software metrics and regular team meetings less than visually seeing how busy someone is,” Ingle says.

On the plus side, there are fewer interruptions if the virtual offices are set up well. And since most people understand Zoom and are comfortable with it these days, clients have become more accustomed to virtual professionals. “Pre-virus, we had a number of clients who were turned off by video meetings and wouldn’t do business that way,” Ingle says.

Ingle is hoping that the relative ease of using the technology will allow her firm to do 100% of the business virtually after the pandemic, though she admits that some of her clients may not want to embrace the technology permanently. The big question, she says, is whether industries will adopt this technology as a new business as usual. “If the industries do, the customers will follow,” Ingle says.

This story was originally published in the Feb/March 2021 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Remote Possibilities: Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, law firms are starting to embrace virtual offices—but will it last?”