May 01, 2020 The Management Issue

Managing Virtual Legal Teams: A Roundtable Discussion

Three experts offer their insights into best practices, unique challenges and rewards of virtual law firms.

Brooke Moore
Business team having discussion and online meeting in video call

Business team having discussion and online meeting in video call

filadendron via Getty Images

The face of legal services is evolving, as is the way attorneys provide legal help. Virtual law firm models are emerging as a way to better serve clients but also to resolve pain points many attorneys practicing in conventional ways struggle with: job dissatisfaction, inefficiency and work/life imbalance.

Virtual lawyers have flexibility in where, when and how they work. This translates to benefits for law firms: Virtual work can both reduce traditional overhead costs and allow firms the ability to attract more and better workers because geographical barriers are removed and more flexibility is offered.

Virtual and Remote Work Is Increasing

According to Upwork’s Freelancing in America report, freelancers made up 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2019. Of the freelancers who believed that the market has changed within the last three years, 77 percent said technology has made finding freelance work easier, and 46 percent said they would be unable to work due to personal circumstances without the flexibility of freelancing. The report also shows that younger generations are increasingly more likely to freelance, with 53 percent of Gen Z workers freelancing in 2019.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “Remote work continues to rise in popularity as an employee benefit as well. The largest increase in 2019 was in part-time telecommuting, which is now offered by over 40 percent of organizations. … Ad hoc telecommuting is offered by a large majority of organizations (69 percent in 2019), and full-time telecommuting is offered by over one-quarter of organizations.”

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Structuring a Virtual Law Firm

Virtual law firms require creativity in both management and operations. Managing virtual teams requires specific tools, processes and communication. Regardless of how you structure your virtual team or what services you provide, this law firm structure involves tremendous benefits and inherent risks.

Virtual law firms carry lower overhead because they typically don’t have a physical office space. By outsourcing work and utilizing automation tools, virtual law firms also don’t have to hire fulltime staff. These firms are more efficient because documents, processes and intake are heavily automated. With automation and streamlined processes in place, there is a smaller margin for error, resulting in reduced liability.

Going paperless can reduce expenses, and case information is stored where it’s more accessible for case management and collaboration purposes. This model can be more easily adapted to new processes and has the flexibility to scale more quickly.

However, despite the benefits associated with this law firm model, there are also risks to consider that aren’t necessarily present in conventional law practices. Most virtual lawyering takes place outside of a traditional office space. All firms must adhere to security and privacy standards; however, virtual law firms have unique privacy risks, including workspace and technology security. Another concern for virtual lawyers is creating parameters for services so that the attorney doesn’t violate any multijurisdictional restrictions or practice rules.

I reached out to three of the top legal powerhouses in virtual lawyering and employee management for insights into best practices, successes, struggles and more.

  • Dina Eisenberg, known as the outsourcing and onboarding queen, teaches the mindset and mechanics of delegation to solo and small firm lawyers who want to scale and design a law practice that fits the life they desire. She shares her knowledge and insights about how to train your legal staff and have a perfect paralegal in her signature program, the Unstoppable Lawyer Playbook.
  • Laura O’Bryan is the co-owner and chief operating officer of MyVirtual.Lawyer, a national network of independent law firms that license use of the MVL brand, a virtual law firm model that provides flat fee and subscription-based unbundled legal services to consumers.
  • Kim Bennett is the owner of K. Bennett Law LLC, a boutique virtual subscription legal services law firm that helps small businesses protect their brands and grow profitable and sustainable seven-figure organizations. These legal innovators provided deep insight into the process of creating and running a virtual law firm.

What is the No. 1 benefit of having a virtual team?

Eisenberg: This has got to be the very best time to be a lawyer. The technology available to us right now is insane. For a lawyer who has a vision for her clients and her law firm, a virtual law practice has got to be nirvana on a personal level. The combination of flexibility with satisfying work is intoxicating. Being virtual increases your impact so much on a business level, not only for clients but also for fellow lawyers who are looking for a different way to practice.

O’Bryan: A traditional 9:00 to 5:00 workday isn’t manageable for a lot of people’s lives. Having a virtual team allows people to work during times that fit their own schedules instead of forcing them to work on a schedule that is not suitable for that individual. This leads to greater motivation, work satisfaction and overall happiness.

Bennett: Having the support to grow your business—because entrepreneurship is a team sport and we all need help along the way!

What is the top risk of having a virtual team?

Eisenberg: The top risk is buying into a prevailing myth. Some lawyers still believe that virtual workers, even professionals like lawyers, aren’t really working if they aren’t in the office. Of course, the complete opposite is true. Remote workers are said to be 13 percent more productive. Apply that to a virtual lawyer and you rest assured you’ll get quality work in the most efficient way.

O’Bryan: It can be difficult to find people who are self-motivated, have a strong work ethic and appreciate the benefits of working virtually. A strong onboarding process and regular check-ins help to keep our virtual team on track and allow us to evaluate the relationship over time.

Bennett: Of course, I would say security. But you can design your team structure to minimize this risk. I think the benefits outweigh the risks when you take the time to design the experience you want for you and your team members.

How do you find the right people for a virtual team?  

Eisenberg: It’s funny how often we think the answer to finding the right person is external. You are the founder of your firm, so everything starts with you. You define the right person. To me, the right person is aligned with your values and goals. They share your sense of fairness and work ethic. They are as relaxed, or not, as you are. The reason most hires fail is a mismatch between personality and culture. First, know your culture. Yes, even a solo has a firm culture. Otherwise, you’re doomed to function out of a default culture that’s inconsistent at best and unfair at worst. Create a yardstick to select candidates who measure up to your values, ethics, personality and goals.

O’Bryan: This is something that we’ve struggled with in the past. But we’ve learned so much from our experiences and have been able to develop a solid interview process, as well as setting and managing expectations at the onset of the relationship.

Bennett: I use the same methods a typical firm uses to recruit. I post positions, ask for referrals and utilize an interview process to decide on who would be the best fit for my virtual team.

What red flags should you be aware of when hiring your virtual team?

Eisenberg: It’s unfortunate when lawyers get so overworked that they forget or disregard red flags. Red flags are important. They help you avoid bad hires who suck up your time and energy without any return. What are your nonnegotiables? What are the qualities or attitudes that you definitely want to avoid? This is a good time to be selfish, meaning that you’re thinking of what works best for you and supports you in delivering the best service to clients.

O’Bryan: Recognizing red flags early on can really save you time and money. Red flags are raised for us when the individual has difficulty with basic technology functions during the interview, is stuck in a traditional mindset or approaches the opportunity as a referral relationship rather than displaying entrepreneurial initiative.

Bennett: Someone who is hard to contact, who doesn’t follow directions and does not like technology.

What are the top three attributes your virtual team member must possess?

Eisenberg: The first attribute a virtual team member should possess is emotional intelligence. Your teammate should have confidence, know her strengths and acknowledge her weaknesses. The second attribute is that she is a critical thinker. She must have the ability to think through a problem and find a practical solution without being told. And last, she must be a thoughtful communicator. She must possess empathy and the ability to clearly share messages. When your team enjoys these attributes, your team has talent agility, the ability to adapt to what happens now and flow with unexpected changes, something that future proofs your law firm.

O’Bryan: The top three attributes I look for in a virtual team member are that she or he is a self-starter, has an entrepreneurial mindset and displays high work ethic with a desire for high work product output.

Bennett: I think this depends on your other team members and your management style. No two teams will look alike, and I believe it’s important to spend time deciding on what you and your team (if you have one) needs and what you don’t need before you hire. For my team, I am looking for self-starters, high achievers and those who can execute and complete high-quality work using technology.

What is the key to successfully onboarding a virtual team member?

Eisenberg: First off, it helps to understand that onboarding is a necessary process. You miss an important opportunity to build your work relationship when you skip onboarding. The key to successfully onboarding your virtual teammates is having a solid foundation. Do you know what your mission and what your vision is for your clients? Do you know what you expect from your team? Introduce your firm culture, goals, values and expectations to your team in a way that’s meaningful, remarkable and consistent.

O’Bryan: Having systems in place and clearly written processes and procedures for both onboarding and ongoing requirements are key. Also, setting clear expectations for the relationship and communicating your expectations effectively are vital.

Bennett: Having a plan and a process. When I’ve hired without a plan and a process, it felt quite disorganized for myself and the new team member. Take time to create a plan for the first 90 days.

What technology tools are key in running and managing a virtual team?

Eisenberg: Communication tools are the key, and tech makes it so easy! It’s really important to almost over-communicate to your team. To make that easy, use tools like Trello to sync with your team and their activities and Loom to record training and appreciation notes.

O’Bryan: Having a central, cloud-based, secure tool for communication is key. Our team uses a secure instant messaging platform for questions, content sharing, video chats and collaboration. Look at legal technology options, but also be open to technology solutions that aren’t specifically designed for the legal profession. You may find a solution that’s a better fit for your practice. Also key is having a practice management system that provides task management and allows team collaboration on client matters.

Bennett: I utilize a suite of technology products in my firm including 1Password as my password manager, Clio for practice and project management, Notion for our internal team wiki, Calendly for calendaring, Google Meet and Zoom for video meetings, Slack for team communications and Dubsado for customer relationship management.

What is one way to create a happy, productive workforce working virtually?

Eisenberg: The best way to create a happy, productive, healthy team is connection, context and clarity. Invest your time and energy to connect with your team as people, not just in the boss-employee dynamic. The connection is the glue that holds your team together in great times and bad. Don’t underestimate how critical that is. Context-share your vision for your clients and your law firm. Imagine this. I ask you if you want to go for a ride. You say yes. I ask you to get in my car and put on a blindfold. What’s your first question? Where are we going? Your team wants to know where you are going and how their work contributes to achieving your mission. They want to belong. Be clear and transparent. Clarity builds trust, which is the basis for high-functioning work relationships.

O’Bryan: Promote a culture of gratitude! I think one thing my partner and I do well is being open and sharing our experiences with our team so they know that we are grateful for not just the work that they do but also the people that they are. I am grateful for every experience in my life and work, good and bad, and because I share this openly, I hope that by example, my virtual team feels comfortable with me as a person and sharing information about themselves, as well as their wins and struggles.

Bennett:  Be open to ideas from the team that allow each person to show up as their best selves, and acknowledge and celebrate team and individual wins!

What systems do you have in place to keep your virtual team accountable?

Eisenberg: I love the team feature in Trello. There’s an add-on called Update that allows me to check in to see what my team has accomplished on a daily basis all in one place without sending a gazillion emails.

O’Bryan:  We have monthly check-in video chats with all members of our legal team and monthly or more-frequent calls and messaging with support team members. We are easily accessible for our team for questions, concerns or to workshop issues.

Bennett:  We have weekly team meetings and project management tools we use to track work. For some of our larger clients, we also have additional client-specific meetings.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that you think is important when growing and managing a virtual team?

Eisenberg:  The future belongs to those lawyers who are willing to unlearn the old ways of practice and embrace the new ways. Be open to experimenting with new models for working together if you want to succeed, because today’s consumer demands efficiency and excellent client service.

O’Bryan:  My advice to those wanting to start a virtual legal team is twofold. First, break the limiting mindset of how a law firm is supposed to look or function. You are doing something unique, and it’s helpful to approach it with that in mind. If your traditional practice colleagues are unsupportive, they are likely coming from a place of fear of the unknown. Second, don’t blow your money on unnecessary things. One of the benefits of having a virtual practice is the ability to significantly decrease your overhead.

Bennett:  Go for it! There are amazing people you can add to your team who don’t need to work in an office with you.

Going virtual provides countless ways to innovate and create a more sustainable, efficient and fulfilling law practice. Firms need to be prepared for more employee demand for part-time telecommuting arrangements, particularly as technology makes working remotely more seamless. As you create and expand your virtual team, make sure you hire the right people, adequately manage expectations, develop consistent processes and procedures, promote collaboration and communication, provide transparency, remain flexible, ensure accountability, design a supportive culture and choose the best technology solutions.

You want to take extra precautions to ensure that your virtual practice is secure.

For instance, use a virtual private network (VPN) when working from a public space. This network will give you privacy and anonymity from the public internet connection at the coffee shop or shared space you’re working in. VPNs will mask your IP address so others cannot interfere with that connection and view your online actions. Also make sure your communications are secured on your computer, tablet or mobile device. Our firm requires two-factor authentication on all mobile devices. This is a two-step verification process to confirm a user’s claimed identity by requiring a password and then a second factor like a required code that is sent to you in order to allow you to log in.

Also be sure you’re using software solutions that ensure your sensitive firm communications are secured and encrypted, ideally to the device and the individual. Our firm uses a cloud-based internal communications application, ArmorText, to share information about both firm and client issues. This application allows us to not only secure the information within the application but also to erase data from a device if a team member leaves the firm or their device is lost or compromised. Although the data is deleted from the individual device, a staff member or attorney can still access the information from another device that has not been compromised. Strong passwords are also key to protecting your sensitive information, so consider using a password manager to generate secure passwords.

Protected external communications with clients is also a priority. Email is not a secure way to communicate sensitive information, and most law firms are not encrypting email communications. According to the 2019 ABA Solo and Small Firm TECHREPORT, less than 50 percent of respondents use email encryption. Unencrypted emails are vulnerable to attacks while in transmission, through hacking or leaked credentials. Either way, your emails can be intercepted. I urge you to consider communicating with your clients and collaborating through a client portal. Client portals provide a secure and encrypted way to communicate and share information, while having the added benefit of storing interactions in one place. If you aren’t using a central portal, be sure to at least encrypt your emails.

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Brooke Moore

Founder

Brooke Moore is the founder of MyVirtual. Lawyer, an online law firm model providing flat fee and subscription-based limited scope services to self-represented litigants, individuals and small businesses. She is also co-founder of {Shift}her, a transformative mindset-centric mastermind model created for professional women,by women, to help them level up in business and life. In 2017 she was named an American Bar Association Women in Legal Tech honoree and received the Fastcase 50 Award. She is co-vice chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2021 and is a nationally recognized speaker and author on topics related to limited scope representation, virtual lawyering and lawyer well-being.