In recent years, “virtual” law firms have garnered increased attention as a viable alternative to the traditional partner model, and its reliance on equity produced by the billable hour.
Led by high-growth examples such as Rimon, FisherBroyles and Culhane Meadows, the change had been slow but steady throughout the early years of the 21st century. Now, in response to pandemic-era public health concerns, even traditional law firms have been forced to shift their operations away from high-rent offices to a distributed, online working environment.
For those who opt for change, it’s clear that the challenges and opportunities of a remote business model call for a very different set of tools. Here are some of the remote working essentials you’ll want to explore.
After a tumultuous year, it’s safe to say most of us are familiar with Zoom. Not only did the popular business conferencing platform become ubiquitous in the B2B and consumer markets, but it was also quickly adopted to run remote hearings by a plurality of U.S. state courts.
There’s a strong argument for sticking with Zoom in your office due to its familiarity and its widespread adoption in the legal system. But firms with an Office365 setup may prefer its rival Microsoft Teams, which integrates similar videoconferencing features into a full-featured communication and collaboration product.
Cloud-based practice management system
At the center of any virtual law firm there should be a robust system for cataloging information on clients and casework.
An effective law practice management system must be tailored to the way your firm operates, helping you organize information, tasks and communications in ways that assist and complement your working style. Because the nature of a firm’s work can vary drastically between or even within the areas of law it practices, it can be difficult to find a single software that will meet all of your firm’s needs out of the box.
To overcome this problem, many of today’s practice management systems don’t work alone. Third-party integration marketplaces like the Clio App Directory give customers the choice to add powerful new capabilities to their practice management software.
With employees working from home or across the world, it’s time to let go of server-based systems with hard installations. The few that still exist are largely migrating their customers to cloud-based, online successors.
Cloud-based document collaboration
To make it easier to collaborate on legal documents with coworkers in different locations, skip the saving-and-sharing routine in favor of a document management software that allows for live edits to be made by multiple users.
In recent years, many legal document management software that previously functioned only as secure file repositories (i.e. NetDocuments, Worldox, and iManage) have built collaborative editing capabilities into their software, emulating the features of word processing tools like Microsoft Word Online.
On the other hand, you might not need legal document management software if your law practice management system integrates with a word processing solution, and has secure document management features built in. For example, LEAP and Smokeball’s extensive integrations with Outlook and Word allow users to compose emails and legal documents related to specific matters, with automatic time-tracking and other helpful features enabled.
Internal messaging tool
Now that you have document collaboration down, consider how you’ll communicate with your team while they are working across dispersed locations. For those times when you don’t need to get on the phone and a meeting is overkill, messaging applications such as Slack or the aforementioned Microsoft Teams allow you to chat back and forth with team members. Share links, ask for feedback, give updates, and otherwise connect virtually with your firm members.
Without clients or employees coming into the office, you’ll need to move away from reliance on paper signatures.
Electronic signatures are generated by a logged-in user and can resemble either a traditional signature or a digital stamp. They can often be added to a document with a few simple points and clicks and emailed out to all signatories. Built-in notification systems make it easy to track who has signed, and who needs a nudge.
E-signature management can be accomplished through stand-alone products like DocuSign, but it is also increasingly being built into practice management or document collaboration software as an integration. To speed up the approval process for forms, look for a solution that doesn’t require you to jump back out of the document you’re working on when you need to obtain a signature
Lead generation/client intake
Traditional law firms may rely on proximity to clients, traditional media advertising, referrals, and AmLaw rankings to build a broad book of business over time. But savvy virtual law firms can capitalize on the power of the internet to target prospective clients with specific, immediate needs.
While a website is a foundational need for any modern law firm, it won’t encourage viable leads on its own. You’ll need well-crafted client intake procedures, such as forms to accept initial inquiries and automated emails to let people know that you have received their request.
The best way to keep money flowing through your firm is to make it as easy as possible for clients to pay. That means no more checks dropped off at an office no one works from and no more allowing the mail service to delay the payment by many days. Set up a virtual payment tool to enable your clients to send over payment for your services with no hassle to them or you.
With this new era comes new challenges and new solutions to solve for them. If you’re intent on building a new kind of law firm that can survive and thrive in the virtual space, make sure that your technology solutions are up to the task.