How to Successfully Run A Virtual Law Firm
By William Peacock
Five years ago, when I told clients that I handle my cases entirely over the phone or online, many responded with utter bewilderment. However, retained clients would sing an entirely different tune upon completing the case. I’ll never forget the feedback from an elderly client in Compton, California, whose case I handled remotely from New York City:
“Willie. I gotta tell you, man. When we first talked, I wasn’t sure how this was going to work. Hiring a lawyer over the Internet. I’m an old-fashioned man. I was a little nervous about hiring somebody all the way on the other side of the country. But man, if anybody I know ever needs a QDRO, I am sending them to you.”
As you might expect, the pandemic changed things whether it be more virtual and boutique law firms. Most lawyers were rushing to learn about Zoom and e-filing—belatedly jumping on the cloud bandwagon. However, my business steadily picked up, and questions from clients about the feasibility of a “virtual” lawyer nearly disappeared. Today, almost every potential client reacts without a modicum of surprise and completely accepts the “virtual” concept.
What is a Virtual Lawyer or Virtual Law Firm?
What is that concept exactly? A virtual lawyer is an attorney who provides services without a brick-and-mortar office. We aren’t fake lawyers; we are just lawyers who deliver services via the phone and the internet. Often, this means we can charge a little less than “traditional” lawyers, but the real advantage is the convenience for our firm and the client. For instance, there are no commutes, no traffic, very little waiting, and if a client misses an appointment, it doesn’t take much to close our calendar and get back to work.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited as a professional—even since I opened my first brick-and-mortar law office. I invited my brothers and sisters out, and we had an office happy hour with dozens of lawyers and their families swapping stories and business cards. I had finally done it: I became a “real” lawyer.
A couple of years and some divine intervention later, I was engaged to a medical goddess with a residency on the other side of the country. Suddenly I had to pivot—I moved 3000 miles away, but most of my clients were back where I started. And in a month, we were scheduled to move again!
I’ve heard similar stories from other virtual lawyers. Often, they will move for family reasons but continue to practice back home virtually. There’s an entire community on Facebook called Lawyer on the Beach where lawyers talk about workflows and tools that make their virtual lives easier. And now that courts across the country have, by force of the pandemic, begun to allow virtual appearances, the feasibility of a virtual or fully remote practice has never been higher.
Benefits of a Virtual Law Practice
The idea of running an entirely virtual law firm may sound like a leap—even for those who regularly practice and even litigate through video calls. The truth is, my practice is not that different from your average attorney.
And now that clients are almost universally comfortable with the concept of a virtual practice, my virtual law office brings many benefits and almost no drawbacks.
Greater Work Flexibility
The most important benefit is flexibility: I can work from anywhere, as long as I have a quiet space in the house. Keep in mind that some states have archaic ethics rules about practicing remotely. If you’re telecommuting to practice law in another state, it falls on you to do the research or consult with an ethics attorney. I have worked from Manila. I have worked from Missouri. I’ll soon be working from four acres of forest in Connecticut.
And just as important as geographic flexibility is time flexibility. Everybody has client no-show appointments, family emergencies, obligations that pull them out of the office, and unexpected life events.
Such emergencies usually ruin an entire day’s productivity for those who have to travel to an office. As a virtual attorney, I handle every appointment or emergency from my home office.
Running a virtual law firm can be a little more boring, but it’s much more predictable and flexible. And my rate of no-shows with clients is significantly lower than when I had a physical office. People seem less likely to flake when they only need a smartphone for appointments. If they flake, I’m already at my desk and can jump to the next task on my list with only a few minutes wasted.
Increased Office Space Savings
Did you notice that I haven’t talked about money yet? Ten years ago, when I read about virtual law offices, one of the biggest selling points was that you would save money on office space. The cost of an office was not a concern of mine when I went virtual. But, thinking about how much offices around here cost, I saved a good amount of money. And that’s not even counting the home office deduction from my taxes that I currently enjoy.
Easy Adoption of Tech
A final benefit of running a virtual law office is the mindset. When you already live on video calls and have implemented technology in your practice, embracing other technologies that improve firm efficiency and client service doesn’t feel like a leap for you or the client. This includes electronic intake forms, document automation, electronic filing, marketing automation, and more.
The Tech Needed for a Virtual Law Office
Are you ready for it? Here is the list: a laptop and Microsoft Word. Maybe email, too.
Okay, that was a little facetious. Honestly though, as a virtual attorney, my tech stack is not that different from other lawyers. The core tasks of being a lawyer (paperwork and talking to clients and other parties) don’t change just because you work out of your house. I still use case management software, email, and Microsoft Word.
Beyond those, I do have a few tools that I absolutely love and make any attorney’s life easier, especially a virtual attorney:
I’m not talking about the calendar built into Microsoft Outlook or your smartphone. I’m talking about one of those platforms where users can select a time for their appointment. This eliminates the back-and-forth of scheduling an appointment with “do any of these times work for you” emails. It also sends out an automatic calendar invite to both parties so that nobody has to note it on their calendar.
With a calendar software platform, I have set up different types of appointments for consultations, document reviews, and long meetings with opposing counsel. And I send it whenever I need to schedule an appointment.
Marketing Automation Software
I use a CRM with marketing automation components, which allows me to send an email and a text with an invitation to schedule a free consultation to any potential client who comes in through my website. And before you ask, I have not yet had a spammer or salesperson schedule an appointment in two years. If no appointment is booked, automatic follow-up requests are sent before that lead is marked as abandoned/lost. I can also automatically send every potential client an intake form, so their data and documents are ready for me before their appointment.
In addition, my calendaring software books the appointment via Google Meet, so we have a web conference room ready at the appointed time. With this in place, no-shows have disappeared, and I need zero support staff for intake and consult scheduling.
It’s one of the oldest and cheapest (read: free) tech tools. It allows you to make calls and texts from a number assigned by Google, using your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. It has allowed me to carry on conversations from across the world without any exorbitant telephone charges. I can also fire off response texts to clients from my desktop computer. I’ve heard many recommendations for other providers to sync communications to the client file in your practice management platform for easy record keeping and billing.
This isn’t exclusive to virtual law firms, as it involves working more efficiently. We’ve all seen document automation in place since the early days of HotDocs, but today’s cloud-based platforms can pull data from your case management system and insert it into documents with a click or two.
Imagine generating every legal pleading you need for your divorce case with a click, leaving you to edit and focus on knowledge-based tasks rather than rote work. There has been a tidal wave of new document automation platforms lately, including MyCase’s own Woodpecker platform.
Some Further Advice on a Virtual Practice
Probably the biggest issue I have run into with running a virtual practice is the bleeding of lines between personal time and work time. This problem goes both ways.
Set Work Boundaries With Family
The bigger problem for me is that, because I am always at home, family members assume that they can offload errands, interrupt me in meetings and that I can just walk away from my work for days at a time. Conversely, when I worked in an office, nobody expected me to walk out of work at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday to pick up the laundry from the dry cleaners.
Make it clear to everyone that you have work hours and that, aside from absolute emergencies, those hours are to be respected. Ask them to treat your time like a real job because that is exactly what it is. Setting this boundary from the beginning will save you immense tension and stress.
Don’t Overextend Work Assignments
A corollary to this is the temptation to work later, work weekends, and maybe come back to your desk before bed. You will hear this same complaint from anybody who has worked remotely over the last few years: sick days and work hours no longer exist. You’ll get a call after dinner and be tempted to answer it. You’ll find yourself on the phone with a distraught potential client for 45 minutes when you thought it would just take a few. And maybe you can sneak in a few edits to the draft before bed, so you have less on your list for tomorrow. You’ll find your work hours going on and on.
The truth is, most lawyers are workaholics who don’t mind working a little late. But when you find yourself with no mental break during a commute, no office water cooler chats or casual lunches with fellow attorneys, and your overflowing desk is just a few feet away; the temptation to continuously work will suck away time from hobbies, family, sleep, and any social life.
Just like you are setting boundaries with your family members about respecting your work time, set work boundaries that respect your personal time.
Setup a Quiet Workspace
A second topic is your actual workspace: find a quiet, closed-off space. During the pandemic, we decided to renovate the kitchen ourselves. I sacrificed my workspace for almost a year while my office became a temporary kitchen. I worked out of the downstairs living room, which meant a constant barrage of noise from my little princess, our three dogs, deliveries, mail, and even the two cats. My productivity during that year was immensely impaired, and my stress level was never higher.
Understand and Test Your Technology
That technology starts with Internet access. It may be tempting to work from the road or maybe work from a restaurant at the beach for a change of pace, but the more time you spend fiddling with free Wi-Fi or troubleshooting the glitchy hotspot feature on your smartphone, the more frustrated you will be, and the less work will get done.
Aside from Internet access, you need a deep knowledge of your tech tools, especially those your clients interact with. If they are having trouble with your calendar or intake forms, you need to send them a quick answer. While there was no troubleshooting a paper form and a pen back in the early days, the immense advantages of electronic calendaring and automation drastically outweigh the occasional technological kinks. And if you know the software well enough, even these minor glitches are things you can guide your clients through. Don’t underestimate the power and helpfulness of smartphone apps as well.
And one more bonus tip: Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who have already done it. For those of us who love technology, work from home, and get very little face time with other attorneys, it’s a refreshing change of pace to talk shop and help out a fellow lawyer trying to solve the same dilemmas we have overcome. This includes me. Feel free to find me on LinkedIn or Twitter if you want to say hello or have any questions about legal technology or running a virtual practice.
William “Willie” Peacock is a marketing consultant and attorney licensed in seven states. One of his many hobbies is writing about law and technology, and he has been cited by the American Bar Association, Above the Law, and other national publications.