Virtual law firms do away with the traditional brick-and-mortar office space, and instead, choose to serve their clients primarily—if not entirely—through the use of technology.
This approach is becoming increasingly popular, spurred on by major advances in communications technology, and the ever-present quest to find more competitive business models and improve profit margins. What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a seismic shift in how businesses and clients engage with one another—more and more people are now perfectly comfortable dealing with businesses without ever having to interact with them in person.
But what does it take to run a virtual law firm successfully? What unique challenges will you face when operating your firm in a virtual environment?
In this post, we’ll explore some of the fundamental questions you’ll need to address when starting a virtual law firm and look at some common difficulties that are likely to crop up once you’re up and running.
What we’ll cover:
- The benefits of running a virtual law firm
- How to start a virtual law firm: The basics
- The tools you’ll need to run a virtual law firm
As a business that’s built a tool that is designed to help you keep your attorneys, staff, and clients connected, we’ve got a firsthand look at the types of tools, people, and processes that are typically needed to make your firm’s transition to the virtual world a success.
So, let’s start off by looking at the advantages of adopting a remote-working model for your law firm.
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The benefits of running a virtual law firm—why do it?
Some attorneys fear the idea of incorporating more technology into their practices, and rightfully so.
They worry that doing so will expose them to unnecessary risks around security and privacy. But the fact is that most modern-day tools aren’t only safe and secure, they’re also extremely client-friendly and reliable.
If you can overcome this tech-skepticism (and put the right protocols in place, of course), you’ll get to appreciate these business benefits of running a firm virtually:
Lower overhead costs
The core benefit of running your firm virtually is that you can save drastically on your overhead costs. Instead of paying for a fixed office space and all the material and maintenance costs that come with it, you can run a fully operational law firm on the cloud—at a fraction of the cost.
One of the most precious assets we have is time. And commuting can take up a disproportionately large amount of our time, whether it’s commuting to and from the office, or traveling to meet clients.
When you run a virtual law firm, you can get a lot of this time back. Check out how MHP&S Law from Tennessee runs a very successful remote-friendly firm.
Want to learn more about running a high-performing virtual law firm? Take a tour of our teardown series on how to run a remote-friendly legal practice.
More power to attract and retain talent
The savings you make from having a lower overhead structure will often mean you can afford to compensate your lawyers (and yourself) more generously compared to a traditional firm. And better compensation will, of course, make your firm more attractive to better recruits.
But many lawyers find the virtual firm model appealing for other reasons too. The fact is, remote-working lawyers tend to enjoy far more control over their work-life balance. They spend less time commuting and have the freedom to choose how, when, and where they work—whether it’s at home, in a coffee shop, or while waiting for the kids to finish dance class.
A better client experience
Having lower overhead costs means you can choose to pass on some of the cost savings to your clients in the form of lower billing rates or new fee structures. It also means you can afford to take on some riskier or more unusual cases than you would under a more traditional model. This combination of factors can make your firm more attractive to a much broader client population.
How to start a virtual law firm: The basics
Before adopting a virtual model for your law firm, you’ll need to give plenty of thought to the following considerations:
One of the first things to think about before going virtual is whether you should have any kind of fixed office space. Do you anticipate needing to host clients in person often? Some firms adopt a hybrid model of having a semi-distributed workforce, but retaining a smaller physical office space, while other firms are fully remote and do away with brick-and-mortar locations altogether.
Before making a decision, be sure to check your jurisdiction’s official office requirements, as in some states you can’t operate without a physical establishment.
Most virtual firms follow a similar organizational hierarchy to traditional firms and use the same kind of management structure to coordinate between attorneys, legal assistants, and support staff.
Of course, the specific way your firm’s departments are organized depends in large part on the type of matters you handle. That said, it’s common for virtual firms to have an intake and referrals department to filter out poorly matched cases, a litigation department for when settlements can’t be reached, a marketing team to handle promotion and social media, and an administrative team to deal with accounts and routine operational needs.
When transitioning to a remote model, you’ll need to update your firm’s policies and processes to accommodate the switch and make sure that there’s minimal disruption to your services while your employees and contractors get to grips with operating remotely.
For example, it should be clear to everyone how cases are to be processed within the new virtual setup. Once a new case has been assigned to a legal team, how will they initially reach out to the client to gather more details about the case, and what systems will they use to maintain correspondence?
Once your updated processes have been defined, make sure you consistently communicate these new expectations with everyone. No one should be in any doubt about when online hours are, how tasks should be assigned, and what channels should be used for communication.
It might also be a good idea to host a weekly firm-wide meeting during which you iron out any issues around virtual caseload management—at least until everyone gets their bearings.
Looking the part
Even though working for a virtual law firm means your team members have more control over their personal work arrangements, it’s still essential for everyone to project a professional image. This is an especially important factor if your attorneys use video conferencing to communicate with clients or referral partners.
You don’t have to lay down the law (ha) or anything, but consider communicating clear expectations around appropriate decor and clothing for video meetings to make sure your firm’s image remains polished and professional.
Developing your company culture
Running a virtual law firm poses some unique difficulties that aren’t necessarily present in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting.
Perhaps the biggest problem is figuring out how to create and maintain a healthy and collaborative work culture when your coworkers are located in different places.
Coworkers might find it more difficult to build rapport with each other due to the lack of in-person communication. This form of communication is hard to replicate since it involves picking up on subtle cues in people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. These cues are important signals that help people to get to know each other better—just think how hard it can be to convey humor, irony, or sarcasm in writing.
A related challenge when it comes to building a tight-knit, virtual work culture is the absence of the traditional “water-cooler” chat. Remote workers are prone to feeling like they’re “on-the-clock” whenever they interact over the phone or in writing and might be more inclined to keep everything exclusively work-related.
There are a few ways to tackle these issues. The first thing is to repeatedly communicate your firm’s core values and mission statement to foster a sense of unity and shared purpose. Another is to schedule regular one-on-one and team meetings during which some time is set aside for personal chat. Yet another commonly used method for nurturing team spirit is to organize periodic get-togethers where your team members can meet up and socialize—it can be something low-key like a summer barbecue or a more luxurious event like a week-long annual retreat.
Ultimately, however, your team’s day-to-day readiness to work together and develop strong relationships will largely depend on the communication systems you have in place. Which takes us to our next point…
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The tools you’ll need to run a virtual law firm
Technology forms the backbone of any remote team. Your virtual firm simply won’t function without a suitable communications toolkit and systems that let you easily (and securely!) manage important client files and information. As someone running a virtual firm, you should always be on the lookout for new technologies that could help you solve your business problems.
When you transition to virtual, the first thing to do is to take an inventory of the tools you already use so you can figure out what else you’ll need. Most firms rely heavily on law practice management software to handle essential functions like appointment scheduling, time tracking, conflict checking, and legal case management. You should take the time to carefully consider your options and bear in mind that you may also need to invest in additional team training to make the most of any new tools you adopt.
When it comes to team communications in a virtual work environment, you can’t expect to operate efficiently while relying exclusively on email and phone. Inboxes get cluttered and important conversations get buried, while phone calls aren’t well-suited for certain tasks like documenting relevant information for later use.
Regardless of what anyone says right now though, it’s hard to argue with the fact that having a phone service is essential for almost every law firm, virtual or not. While video conferencing is a great new option (more on that later), a phone call is still one of the easiest and most convenient ways to get in touch with clients (and for them to reach you too).
Now, of course, you could just use your typical business phone for this. But if you’re on the phone often with clients and colleagues, then you might need something a little more sophisticated. For instance, did you know that there are communication apps that allow you to flip your phone call from your phone to your computer?
Not only that, some of these apps also let you switch your phone call to a video call (in case you want to talk face to face or share your screen) with just a tap:
And both of these neat features come included with the RingCentral desktop and mobile app! You can check it out in more detail here:
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💰 You can also use this calculator to see roughly how much your business could save by using RingCentral to support your team’s communication with each other. (And clients, and contractors, and partners, and so on…)
What’s more, when it comes to communicating with clients, around one in three (34%) clients prefer it when attorneys give them the option to stay in contact through channels like live chat or video conferencing.1 It’s probably safe to assume that this figure is even higher for clients who specifically seek counsel from a virtual law firm.
If you’re running a virtual law firm, then one of the biggest adjustments is likely going to be shifting from in-person meetings to virtual meetings.
Which means you’ll need a good video conferencing software. (Learn more about how to choose a good tool for your firm.)
So, if you’re running an online-focused law firm, it’s essential to invest in tools that make it as easy as possible for your distributed team to collaborate and that give your clients a variety of ways to keep in contact.
For example, RingCentral’s virtual workspace for law firms does exactly this by consolidating instant messaging, video meetings, and a modern business phone system all into one easy-to-use communications platform. And yes, it works on any device—Mac or PC, Android or iOS:
The platform creates an always-on line of communication for clients and brings together all their messages—from social media, email, and live chat—into one centralized dashboard so your team can reply promptly and accurately.
At the same time, your team members can stay in sync with each other through video meetings, manage caseloads and share files through team messaging, and capture and track client interactions with call logs.
Crucially, the RingCentral platform gives you added peace of mind by protecting all your conversations and client information through its robust security measures. What’s more, as an all-in-one communications platform, you’ll no longer need to subscribe to multiple tools just to keep your team connected!
Ready to transition to a virtual law firm?
Despite the benefits, taking the leap to running a virtual law firm is not for the faint-hearted. There’s a considerable degree of preparation needed to ensure the smooth-running interplay between your processes, technology, and personnel in a virtual environment.
That said, provided you put in the necessary prep work upfront and are ready to make plenty of adaptations as you find your way in this new terrain, the rewards of working for a virtual firm can be significant.
Originally published Nov 01, 2020, updated Jun 02, 2021