May 01, 2019 May/June 2019

Virtual Is the New Law Firm Reality

A roundtable of five leaders managing virtual law firms.

Marcia Watson Wasserman

Enhanced technology, high office rent, traffic and long commute times, work/life blend and a desire to better serve clients have resulted in the creation of a new way to practice law: the virtual law firm. For some, this means a cloud-based, distributed law firm with 21 available, on-demand, fixed office locations throughout the U.S. For others it means no brick-and-mortar locations at all. At the request of the Law Practice editorial board, I asked five law firm leaders to share their experiences managing and, in some instances, starting virtual law firms. They are Cathryn Chinn, CEO of VLP Law Group LLP (VLP) in San Francisco; Cynthia Flynn, managing partner of Hackler Flynn & Associates (HF) in Monterey Park, California; Grant Walsh, co-founder and co-managing partner of Culhane Meadows PLLC (CM) in Dallas; Brooke Moore, founder and president of MyVirtual.Lawyer (MVL) in Little Rock, Arkansas; and Joel Ferdinand, general counsel and managing partner of litigation of FisherBroyles, LLP (FB) in Atlanta.

Law Practice (LP): Please tell us a little bit about your firm, that is, the number of attorneys, paralegals and staff; the locations; the practice areas.

Chinn: VLP currently has 60 attorneys, nine paralegals and 11 staff. Our attorneys cover 18 practice areas in eight industries. Our attorneys and staff are located around the country, currently in 15 different states.

Flynn: HF has seven attorneys, two paralegals and two support staff. We have offices in Monterey Park and Irvine, California, but our lawyers work remotely from California and four other states. Our practice area is employment defense—protecting and defending business owners.

Walsh: CM is the largest national, full-service, women-owned law firm in the country, having grown in six years from four co-founders to almost 70 partner-level attorneys—and no associates—in nine locations. As one of the largest cloud-based firms in the country, we do not employ any salaried paralegals and instead engage legal support resources under a variable cost approach to cut overhead and save money for our clients. We have a full back-office administrative team (also working remotely from their home offices) that handles our day-to-day operational needs, conflict checks, billing, invoicing, setting up new client files, etc.

Moore: My official title is founder, but my internal title is madam president. (We give ourselves fun names.) I primarily take on the role of innovation, marketing, growth and outreach. I have a partner who joined the firm last year as chief operations officer and chaos coordinator. We have three contract attorneys in Arkansas. We also license our MVL brand and have attorney licensees in multiple jurisdictions throughout the country. Because we rely on technology, automation and outsourcing, internal support staff is not necessary. Our firm is 100 percent virtual and handles family, estate and business law matters on a flat-fee, limited scope or subscription basis.

Ferdinand: FB has 21 fixed office locations available for use (so that clients are not charged exorbitant rates for overhead that not all partners need) and a sophisticated and secure infrastructure so that our partners may work from the locations they desire to be more efficient while passing cost savings on to our clients. FB is a full-service law firm composed of approximately 235 partners—we are a partner-only law firm so that our clients are not billed for associates to learn on the job—providing national and international services to our clients. Throughout the firm we have an additional 107 staff members, ranging from paralegals, assistants, accounting representatives, conflicts representatives and the like.

LP: How does your firm handle legal and administrative workflow—for example, people, systems, procedures and collaboration software?

Flynn: Each case is assigned to one attorney. We use Lexicata and Clio. We have a firm-wide calendar meeting once a week in which we go over exciting things happening personally and professionally, the calendar and any questions or outstanding issues with clients or cases. All mail that comes in is scanned and sent to the paralegals for review and distribution. All mail that goes out, goes out by one of them.

Walsh: CM is unique among law firms in that it has created a working environment that encourages deep collaboration among attorneys across all geographies and practice disciplines to best serve clients’ needs. We implement technology that fosters and sustains BigLaw-style collaborative relationships among partners at a much lower cost. Data security is also a top priority. Intermedia provides hosting services for email. The firm uses Worldox for central document management, the SecuriSync file-sharing portal for secure collaboration on documents with clients and partners, and Skype for Business for videocalls between partners and to share screens while collaborating on documents. The firm also has an internal, secure instant-messaging system for immediate communications or to exchange notes with remote partners during a multiperson conference call.

Moore: We heavily rely on technology to operate and expand our practice. Potential clients will sign up for a 30-minute phone consultation by either calling our virtual reception service (TeleDirect) or signing up on our calendar (Acuity Scheduling) directly from our website. After the consultation, if the person becomes a client, we set him or her up in our law practice management client portal (PracticePanther), and from there we communicate, share documents (Box) and receive payments (LawPay) through the client portal for the duration of our retained service. We also use ArmorText, an encrypted messaging and management tool, to communicate, collaborate and share resources internally with our team. Videoconferencing is our preferred choice for video meetings and trainings.

LP: What type of office space does your firm use? Where are “home field” depositions or closings, client and firm meetings held?

Chinn: We have no brick-and-mortar office. Each attorney is responsible for his or her own work environment. Some work from home, some rent their own office space. Administrative staff works from home. Individual attorneys meet with their own clients as needed, often at the client’s office or for a meal or coffee. We have regular biweekly firm teleconference calls via videoconference. Practice groups, staff and various committees have monthly or biweekly conference calls as well. Teleconferencing is generally the way our firm keeps in touch.

Flynn: Our Los Angeles office rents space from a manufacturing company; we have office space and use of the conference room. Our Irvine office is an executive suite. Most meetings are held in our Los Angeles office, but we find that, in representing busy business owners, we can do just about everything via email, phone calls and videoconference calls. Depositions are either taken in our office or at the court reporter’s location.

Moore: Our firm is 100 percent virtual. We do not have any brick-and-mortar locations. We all work remotely from home offices, coffee shops, our couches and, occasionally, a kid’s soccer game. Our firm is entirely transactional, even for litigation-based practice areas. Our limited scope representation services delegate administrative tasks to the client while we handle the transactional legal components of their case, so in-person interactions are not necessary. We meet with clients initially via phone or videoconferencing. Once a client is set up in our client portal, the client has direct access to its attorney through the messaging feature. All further communication and correspondence happen there. We do have a UPS box mailing address that provides a physical street address for business mailings or listings and to appease Google’s algorithms.

LP: How does your firm address supervising, motivating, developing and retaining attorneys and staff? Is your firm’s virtual practice an asset or liability for retention, and why?

Flynn: I only hire the best candidates, all of whom have more experience than me. Each attorney I currently work with has over 10 years of legal experience and therefore requires little to no oversight. Expectations are clearly set prior to hiring, which is basically the number of hours each attorney is required to bill per week. The fact that all the attorneys here have a home office and can work essentially whatever hours they’d like seems to attract and retain high-quality talent. This flexibility allows our attorneys to go to their child’s soccer game, be involved in their child’s PTA and attend parent-teacher meetings on their own terms without having to worry about being judged for not being in the office. Also, once a year we do a company-wide get-together where we bring everyone together for a few days for fun stuff—we’ve done yoga/meditation, photo shoots, hiking, helicopter rides, boat rides and Broadway shows in New York—all sorts of fun events.

Walsh: CM’s partners come to us highly motivated. They actively seek out CM’s cloud-based approach and transparent, merit-based compensation system where our low overhead structure lets them take home about twice as much compared to a traditional firm. They come to CM from conventional BigLaw firms and even other virtual law firms because they want a better, more transparent and more attorney-client-friendly way to practice law! CM partners stay because they genuinely like each other—yes, each office organizes regular social events—and because CM is uniquely partner-focused. We are intentional during recruiting because we’re determined to keep this cool culture and foster this tight-knit, collaborative environment among a geographically dispersed and diverse partnership. Every month CM hosts an all-firm conference call as well as in-person local gatherings for our partners in each market. To build esprit de corps, office members frequently get together for a community service activity or recruiting happy hours or other social events. In addition, the firm holds an annual four-day partnership retreat for meetings and social interaction between the attorneys.

Ferdinand: FB’s cloud-based, distributed model is an absolute asset to retention. Because FB hires only partners and provides transparent formula-based compensation (with four specific payment metrics for obtaining a client, working on a client matter for your own client, working on a client matter for another partner’s client and recruiting), our partners are incentivized to work together, have the highest-quality work product and to be efficient for the benefit of the client. Because we are a partner-only law firm, supervision is a misnomer. Our partners work efficiently together such that we can monitor work product through a team approach. Our model allows lower billing rates by drastically reducing overhead and passing on cost savings directly to our clients. This all results in a better work product, at a better rate for our clients, with partners that are actually happy.

LP: How does your firm create and influence culture?

Chinn: VLP believes that creating a strong culture is important to the overall well-being of the firm. We have a Virtual Culture Committee (VCC) that is tasked with creating and maintaining the culture of our firm, something that can be challenging in a virtual environment. The VCC regularly has contests and drawings. Its members ask people to send in family photos for various events during the year, such as summer vacations, back to school and Halloween. There are sports challenges (Super Bowl, March Madness, fantasy football and baseball) and Oscar prediction contests. During the holidays the VCC hosts a virtual auction for charity, and employees donate and bid on items. VLP lawyers and staff regularly get together informally for lunches or coffee, and the firm also organizes regional get-togethers during the year, such as barbecues, a concert in the park or serving together at a local food bank. The firm typically holds a spring meeting and a fall retreat for all VLP personnel during which people have the opportunity to get together in person for professional sessions and social activities.

Moore: All our attorneys take accountability for their role in building the MVL brand. Before new attorneys or licensees join us, we make sure they understand our law firm model, embrace the same passion for our services and have the entrepreneurial work ethic it takes to succeed. We encourage feedback, communication and collaboration within our community. We are responsive and make sure our attorneys know they are appreciated. We also have realistic expectations for, and empathy towards, our team. We are real and transparent, and I think our attorneys appreciate that. We also market our firm to attorneys who could benefit from our model to start or continue to meaningfully practice law. Specifically, we target military spouse attorneys, mom attorneys and retiring attorneys. Our model is built to fit their unique lifestyle because, as a military spouse and mom myself, I built this firm based on my challenges with traditional options in the legal profession. It also helps that our attorneys retain control over their practices, instantly join a collaborative community and, most importantly, they can work in their pajamas.

 

Ferdinand: The first measure of a firm’s continuing culture is in the recruits it hires. Our executive committee, which acts as the firm’s hiring committee, carefully examines recruits. We find that most firms focus on the portable book of a recruit. While that is certainly a factor in our recruiting process, we focus more on the recruit herself or himself. Frankly, due to the formula-based compensation structure at FB, we tend to hire lawyers who not only understand the model but also are frustrated with the typical inefficiencies and the red tape of traditional, large law firms. These recruits want to practice on a high level, work with people they both trust and like, and desire transparency. FB’s model is uniquely situated to provide the same, which continues its culture.

LP: How does having a virtual firm help you with marketing to prospective clients and retaining and cross-selling to existing ones?

Chinn: In the 21st century most legal services are provided by telephone and email. Many clients never personally meet the lawyers with whom they are working. In that regard VLP is no different from any other law firm, and that VLP is a virtual firm is immaterial to most clients. However, VLP’s lower overhead (because we do not have brick-and-mortar offices) allows our attorneys to offer clients more flexibility in how services are provided, whether that be flexible pricing, on-site hours or dynamic teams. In addition, VLP does not hire junior attorneys or paralegals. Accordingly, clients understand that they are paying for legal services from experienced lawyers, not for fancy offices or training junior personnel. The fact that we have attorneys who specialize in many different practice areas allows VLP to offer clients a broad range of transactional and intellectual property legal services.

Walsh: Business in general is increasingly virtual. Our clients, even the Fortune 100, rely on a growing, geographically dispersed, virtual workforce themselves. They like that we are lean, nimble and laser-focused on delivering highly sophisticated legal counsel on their most complicated matters in the U.S. and around the globe. CM serves nearly two dozen Fortune-ranked corporate clients who trust us with their complex legal work because they know our partner-only roster is comprised of experienced BigLaw talent—delivering client-centric results at a fraction of conventional BigLaw fees. Our members guide clients through $100 million+ deals, work collaboratively and form client service teams. New CM clients are pleasantly surprised that when their attorney joins CM and “moves to the cloud,” nothing changes in their attorney-client relationship except the value proposition. The client no longer sees fancy artwork on the walls because the firm has no walls and no unnecessary overhead. When clients call to talk to their lawyer, their attorney answers the phone rather than layers of staff. And the attorneys working on their matter have an average of more than 20 years of experience, not a third-year associate’s.

Ferdinand: Our cloud-based, distributed model has helped FB drastically reduce traditional overhead that is simply not needed by most of our partners. Fixed office space, assistants for every lawyer, paralegals for every lawyer and the like are not necessary for all lawyers because of the proper utilization of software and technology. Most law firms are antagonistic to change, and particularly hostile toward technology. This is remarkable, however, where the clients we all represent use technology for efficiency. Deleveraging overhead, paying your attorneys more for them to utilize some of that money to personally decide what resources they need for their respective practices, allowing billable rate control and leveraging technology results in a sound model that lends itself well for marketing, retention and cross-selling. As to marketing, FB is the oldest and largest cloud-based law firm in the world. From our clients’ perspective, this simply means that we are a partner-only law firm, will not bill to learn on the job, will perform work at a high level and our invoices are typically far less for the same work we performed at our previous large law firms.

LP: Any parting words of wisdom for lawyers who are contemplating setting up their own virtual law firms?

Chinn: You have to work at it to get it right. It’s not as easy as it looks. We’ve been at it for more than 10 years, and we’re still improving. And a good IT support staff is essential. But if you take the leap, and eliminate or reduce your commute and overhead, practicing law in a virtual firm can be extremely rewarding—professionally and personally.

Flynn: I wholeheartedly recommend it. I work harder than I ever have before, but most of my work is not done in the office. I’m constantly out and about in client meetings, networking events and speaking engagements. I feel that if I had all our attorneys and staff come into the office every day, resentments might start to build up because I’m not physically there—even though I’m working more hours than I ever had before—so I think having a virtual firm is a positive benefit. Also, when you have employees working from home, make sure they are well-vetted and that you can trust them. Set expectations early and have key performance indicators for everyone.

Walsh: Cloud-based law firms are real law firms. Despite the myth of simplicity in launching a virtual or cloud-based law firm, the learning curve is steep. Fortunately, my CM co-founders and I had the benefit of learning the “virtual ropes” while at another virtual firm. When we left to start CM, we did not want to be just a website representing a bunch of free-floating solo practitioners or hide our financials behind layers of secrecy. We built a real, cloud-based law firm of partners committed to the firm’s success through full transparency and a culture of collaboration. Key to anyone considering starting a firm is to invest in doing everything the right way—do not skimp on security protocols that protect client records, and invest necessary resources to fully comply with the professional ethical and multijurisdictional tax obligations of a national practice.

Moore: A big mistake I see attorneys making is taking a traditional law firm model mindset and applying it to a virtual law firm model. This tends to limit the growth and potential that comes along with fully embracing a virtual law firm model. Along with that often comes unnecessary overhead. Be lean and resourceful in your financial investments. Go all in on technology, and regularly review that technology to make sure the tools you use are the best fit for your firm and your clients. Also, spend the time up front to learn your software so you can utilize it to the fullest, automate where you can and create workflows. Make sure to review all the policies, terms and conditions of your software providers. Being legally compliant with our ethical and procedural rules, as well as the security of information, is imperative. Because a virtual law firm should help you reduce your overhead, consider clients in that savings. Value your time and experience but pass along some of those savings to clients. Oh, and if you are considering virtual lawyering, make sure to first check your jurisdiction’s bona fide office requirements because some states still restrict or do not allow law firms to operate without a physical office space.

Ferdinand: Changing a model that was created more than 100 years ago takes struggle, particularly for lawyers who focus more on tradition than practicality. The founders of FB were years ahead of the curve. It took FB 17 years to become what it is today—a national, full-service law firm with more than 200 partners. Leveraging technology is only part of the equation. The traditional law firm model is long overdue for closer examination. This is something clients have been complaining about for decades, but very few firms are willing to consider a change other than a potentially reduced rate (which, in a traditional model, severely impacts the lawyers working on the file), fixed fee or mixed contingency. Focus on what is necessary to provide a high level of service while placing the client first. Although a law firm is a business, its clients and lawyers must be given priority.

LP: Thanks, everyone, for sharing your insights and experiences building and managing virtual law firms.

Marcia Watson Wasserman

Marcia Watson Wasserman, president of Comprehensive Management Solutions Inc., is a law practice management consultant and facilitator of managing partner roundtables. She is co-author of Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees (ABA 2017). She is an associate editor and member of the editorial board of Law Practice and a member of the Law Practice Division’s Publishing Board. mwasserman@comprehensivemgmt.com

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