Today, we look at remote work very differently than even a couple years ago. The pandemic, while closing some doors, opened many possibilities to be flexible and changed the way we see businesses. One of those new possibilities is the virtual law practice.
While remote work has likely existed since the creation of the telephone and grew advanced with the internet, now is the best time yet for non-traditional working arrangements.
Technology has been progressing at a rapid speed, and the legal world is benefiting from that just as well as any other field.
Clients are more open to participate in virtual meetings, and the overall consumer opinion has been more positive.
Communications are becoming more prompt between colleagues within a firm as well. Messaging and video conferences save precious travel time, and allow a more manageable schedule for those involved.
Moreover, running a virtual law firm broadens your horizons. You don’t have to be in the same town to be an excellent, dedicated lawyer for people who need representation, which is especially important if you work in a highly specialized practice area. This can be a comforting thought for potential clients.
The difference between a virtual lawyer and one working remotely
A law professional can choose to work face-to-face or remotely, based on their preference and life situations.
A virtual lawyer, however, must meet the eLawyering Task Force guidelines for the ABA’s concept of a virtual law firm.
Most importantly, there is a difference in the lawyer’s confidential communication with their clients. A virtual law firm will use special software, whereas a lawyer just working remotely can connect with their client simply via phone if in-person is not possible at the moment.
Starting your virtual law firm: the moment is now
People are moving toward everything virtual now more than ever, and their law practice is no exception. Below, we break down some of the reasons why and highlight the potential benefits.
Affordability & reduced risk
First thing’s first: a virtual law practice allows you to save a lot of money.
Running a law practice is unpredictable. One month might be incredibly profitable, but the next could be a month of losses.
Throughout the ups and downs, you’re still responsible for payroll, software expenses, professional association dues, and all the other costs of doing business. Minimizing traditional office expenses can help save money and reduce the pain of an unprofitable month.
The thought of not spending thousands of dollars on renting or buying office space is definitely a good one. The number of employees you need to run a practice goes down as well; for instance, you don’t need a full-time office manager or cleaning staff.
You save significant money and time when you cut out the commute, too.
Going virtual will also likely mean going paperless. Less printed documents will let you save on costs related to producing and storing paper files. Plus, it’s a much more pleasant way to work.
Flexibility & mobility
Three words: work-life balance.
Going remote means you can set your own schedule and ensure a comfortable work day. You can spend quality time with family and friends or take much-needed time for yourself.
Another great benefit is the flexibility of meetings. You can make it work even if you have to navigate time zone differences. Since you don’t need to physically go anywhere, it’s easier to schedule calls and meetings with respect to everyone’s time.
At the same time, if you want to travel, that’s definitely an option.
While many in the industry associate an office, especially an expensive and well-built office, with success, it might be hard to overcome at first. But like remote work in general, the way we view traditional benchmarks have been drastically changing.
With proper legal technology, you can also think about expanding the geographic areas you work within, creating more opportunities for your virtual law firm.
Leverage coworking spaces, freelance talent, or remote hiring and you can easily expand your location-independent firm.
How to start a virtual law firm
While we all appreciate a good to-do list that goes through what is needed step-by-step, it’s nearly impossible to achieve in this case. All practices are different, as well as working styles, goals, and opportunities.
Your next steps will also vary depending on your state. Always check your state and local rules before making major decisions about your firm.
The list we included here is a high-level overview of the steps you’ll probably need to take. Use it to decide if it makes sense for you and your associates to start a virtual law office.
Before getting started, it is helpful to stop and take a look at everything you’ve done so far. Evaluating your experience and specialties can be beneficial for growth and inspire you to leverage your strengths.
Write a business plan
If you have a business plan already, it might be time to revisit it. If you don’t, it’s time to create one.
An accurate business plan outlines what your goals are and what you are looking to achieve in your practice. It also creates a roadmap that shows how you’re going to get there.
Map your future in detail considering the revenue goals and milestones you want to achieve. Once you have an idea, put together options for what your fees can look like and map out the timeline to achieve desired numbers.
You may need to adjust your current fees and/or hours to meet your goals. Perhaps you can even reduce your billable rates to attract more clients. Be realistic and make sure to not set your goals too low.
Next, add a description of your firm, conduct market research and analysis, touch upon marketing, and think through operations and administrative goals.
Putting your business plan together can be a lot of work, but it’s worth the effort up front. You’re much more likely to succeed if you’re diligent in your research and planning before you launch.
How much does it cost to start a law firm remotely?
Regardless of having your team in a physical office or not, you likely have employees that need to be paid and office tasks to be handled, as well as the operations side of your virtual law firm. That said, you can manage to support your practice with less than $200 a month for “office” expenses!
Startup costs may include business licensing, incorporation fees, marketing and branding, and website development. All of these things are highly variable depending on your locality and your business goals.
It’s reasonable to expect some up-front investment. However, you can take a more bootstrapped approach when starting your virtual law firm by keeping initial costs to a minimum and adding things like custom website development and additional staffing to the roadmap as you start servicing clients.
Set up your virtual law office
First and foremost, consider which technology you’ll need to successfully start your remote practice.
This will likely include an online client portal where you can store your clients’ information including their contacts and case details.
Creating a calendar and setting up a billing system will also come in handy to go into your virtual law practice seamlessly.
From there, you’ll want a good case management system and virtual law practice software. The more you can do digitally, the better, and finding integrated solutions for things like eFiling and service of process is a major cost and time saver.
Also think about how you’re going to manage communication and workflows between attorneys and legal support who all work in different locations. A project management tool like Trello, Asana, or Monday can make a huge difference. Many of these integrate with Slack, which is a popular communication tool for all kinds of remote teams.
Remember to look for great financial software that can handle payroll and taxes, tools to help you keep your practice secure, and decide how you’re going to manage documents safely.
In other words, you’re going to need some kind of digital solution for everything. There needs to be a virtual equivalent of your filing cabinets, your meeting rooms, and your office receptionist, too.
Preparing your home office
Rearrange your existing space or create a new one so that you’re totally ready to run your law practice.
Now that you are remote, operations will likely look different, so take preventive steps and set up before you are buried under a pile of cases.
It’s important for attorneys to have the option to speak with their clients face to face rather than just over the phone. This keeps a sense of presence and builds trust, especially when discussing important business matters.
Working from a home office presents new challenges, especially for families with children at home. Being able to be present with your family is an advantage, but it can also be a distraction when you need time and space to focus on important work. Give yourself a space where you can shut the door and focus.
For the sake of your health, invest in a comfortable chair, a real desk, and a few ergonomic office supplies. You don’t have to blow your budget on monitor risers and wrist rests, but do place some priority on setting yourself up in a healthy space.
Play by the rules
Like with anything in law, there are a number of rules that need to be followed.
For instance, requirements for your jurisdiction vary depending on the state you are practicing in.
Some states don’t allow a fully remote law practice, which might require you to have a physical office as well. There is flexibility here that still allows you to save on overpriced office space by working in shared space or a smaller office rental, but it’s not the same as a totally virtual practice.
Privacy is crucial, especially when all of your clients’ data is stored online. Today, in the age of information, protecting data is essential and has to be taken seriously.
Make sure to use two-step authentication everywhere possible and keep track of which devices have their microphone on during private conversations. Learn how to turn off the listening features on smart speakers like Google Home or Amazon Echo devices, or opt to keep those out of your workspace entirely.
There are ethical rules that need to be followed as well. Brush up on legal ethics in your state and check all resources to make sure you’re covering all of your bases. Keep in mind, too, that the right legal technology can help mitigate your ethical risks.
Is a virtual law practice right for you?
While it might be intimidating to get started, this decision is likely to lead you to grow in your career.
After considering all the risks and benefits, talking to other professionals that went remote could help you make up your mind as well. Experience is always the best teacher, and it doesn’t have to be your experience.
At the end of the day, it’s important to do what’s best for your practice, depending on how your team works and what type of work-life balance you’re looking for.
Research what rules there are in your area to start your virtual law office and see if it’s a good fit. It’s not right for everyone, but if it works for you, your pocket will most likely benefit and you will be able to create the schedule you’ve always wanted.