Does anyone even know what a ‘virtual’ law firm is? I get asked this question on a regular basis and it goes something like this:
“I operate a virtual law firm.”
“Oh OK, what’s that?”
“I basically don’t have a fixed office, I communicate with my clients largely on phone or via a video conference and I deliver most of my legal services online.”
“So you work at home on your laptop and chat on Skype?”
“Um … yep.”
Well, it’s a little more than that but contrary to what it sounds like, a virtual lawyer is not an interactive hologram in a shiny white suit appearing like a shining vision in the sky offering futuristic, high-tech legal services.
Virtual lawyers simply run highly efficient, low overhead firms with no fancy brick and mortar office space. Virtual lawyers are either solo attorneys working from home or lawyers belonging to a wider network of mobile lawyers who are leveraging technology to run a flexible business model with competitive pricing.
So as a virtual lawyer, what do you need to run your firm? A lawyer’s tools of trade is generally his or her brain and the gift of speech. Our words, our communication, analytical and strategic skills and our ability to distill large volumes of information in order to advise clients define how we perform as a lawyer. Yet virtual lawyers also need ‘tools’ like any other profession or trade to run a ‘lean and clean’ operation and tech tools are our best friend.
So what apps and tools should the virtual lawyer have in his or her toolbox? Let’s take a look at the types of software and systems that will assist a lawyer in setting up a thriving virtual practice.
The Basic Virtual Toolkit
Broadly speaking, there are 6 areas you need to look at when launching a virtual firm:
1. How will I market my services to clients?
2. What system will I use for practice management?
3. How will I manage documents?
4. How will I communicate with my clients?
5. What reference materials and educational resources will I need?
6. How will I manage my workflow?
1. Lead Generation
Most lawyers immediately jump to practice management systems and technology tools when considering starting a firm. We’re hardwired to think about processes and systems and establishment costs. But what about clients? Newsflash: you need clients to run a law firm! Marketing, social media and lead generation is super important if you’re going to run a profitable practice.
A few quick tips:
Set up a website: 46.1% of people say a website’s design is the number one criterion for discerning the credibility of the company. There are so many amazing template websites out there so there’s no excuse not to have a website. It is your international business portal and the face of your virtual practice. I use Squarespace as the base for my law firm website and arranged for a graphic designer to jazz it up and make sure that the contact forms and social media widgets were working properly. I also highly recommend starting a blog (even once a month) or publishing compelling content on a platform like LinkedIn Pulse.
Focus on 1 or 2 social media platforms and do them well: Whether it’s Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram, find where your clients hang out and make it your little niche. Share useful and engaging content with your audience on a consistent basis and remember that 40% of people respond to visual rather than plain text so use images and infographics whenever you can!
Email Signup: Make sure your website allows people to sign up to your newsletter and/or blog so that you can build your loyal client database. Send out a newsletter to your subscribers in order to stay top of mind.
Testimonials and Referrals: Good old-fashioned networking, in person and online, is always the number one lead generator. Ask your clients to give you a positive testimonial for your website if they are happy with your service and always thank your regular referrers.
Q&A Forums: Online Q&A forums set you in good stead to be considered an expert in your area. Forums like Avvo and Quora in the US are a great place to start. In Australia, you can pop onto Law Answers to give customers relevant information on a particular legal topic.
2. Practice Management
From time tracking and reporting to conflict checks to matter management, a good practice management solution is the central organisation hub that allows a lawyer to operate the practice efficiently. Choosing a cloud-based system is critical for virtual lawyers as it is the most easily deployed and you (or staff) can access the data and system from anywhere. Whenever you login, automatic updates are performed seamlessly so there’s no need for manual intervention.
Products like Clio, MyCase, Practice Panther, Leap Cloud (an Aussie market player) and other cloud systems are great ones to try out if you’re starting out in your virtual firm. And if you decide to grow your firm from a sole practice to a larger enterprise, you can simply add extra seats or licenses as you acquire contractors and employees.
With respect to financing and billing, this may all be incorporated into your practice management system however it will also help to have a cloud-based system for your bookkeeper or accountant to log onto and help you (particularly around tax time) as well as helping you stay on top of trust accounting and business financials throughout the year. Xero, Quickbooks and MYOB all have cloud-based accounting systems for your business. Personally, I use Xero and it is really user-friendly. I am pretty sure my 10 year old nephews would get their head around in it in no time (and far quicker than I have!).
3. Document Management
Inextricably linked to practice management, document management is still an area of your virtual practice which requires careful consideration. Traditional law firms typically store files in a centralized file cabinet or server. Virtual law firms, however, store all files in digital format, and use a cloud-based solution to make documents available to the entire staff, independent of physical location and on any device.
Storage providers such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive/Google for Business and NetDocuments allow law firms to store documents online, either for free or with a premium plan that charges only for space that you actually use and you may be able to integrate these with your practice management system. Depending on the product, there may be local storage options as well as productivity and collaboration features so you can have an assistant on the other side of the world jump online to share or edit an important document. Of course, your practice management system may have this covered however here is some quick info on some of the other options:
Dropbox – a web-based cloud storage system with up to 2GB of free storage, with a tiered payment system for increased storage. Dropbox Pro is $12.99 per month (1000GB of additional storage) and Dropbox for Business is $17 per user per month. Works on Apple and Android. Dropbox does not, however, allow encrypted files to be shared through its system and attorneys should keep this in mind before sharing confidential client information on the platform.
Box – A secure content management, collaboration and file sharing program with a range of pricing options including Starter ($6 per month), Business ($17), Enterprise (premium package). The Starter pack is designed for teams of 3 to 10 people with 100GB secure storage, 2 GB max file size, mobile, sync and share capabilities and document encryption amongst other features.
Google Drive – With Google, you get 15GB free storage and file sharing capabilities in the cloud, accessible from any device. Google Apps for Work is $5 per user per month and it includes: business email addresses (firstname.lastname@example.org), videos and voice calls, integrated online calendars and security and admin controls.
OneDrive – Microsoft’s cloud-based file sharing and document storage system. Also offers 15GB free storage, or 100GB at US $1.99 per month, 200GB at US$3.99 per month or 1TB storage for businesses at US$6.99 per month, including Office 365.
This is not an exhaustive list but you get the gist. I am not going to delve into security in this post because it is such a huge topic but you should definitely enquire about the security level of your chosen platform and question the company’s data protection measures. Data sovereignty and ownership is another big issue but that’s for another post! Keep in mind that most attorneys have been using email for years and many cloud-based systems offer greater protection than unencrypted email.
One final tip: signing up to an electronic signature platform will help you and your clients send and sign documents with ease. I use HelloSign and pay $156 annually – check it out here.
OK, so if you don’t have a physical office, where do you ‘meet’ your clients? Answer: it’s not in some alternative Interstellar dimension. Sometimes you actually meet in person like a regular lawyer (who knew?), either at court or in a coworking office space, hired meeting room or in a local cafe. The rest of the time, you’ll be hanging out online so you’ll need to select rockstar video conferencing tools: from Microsoft Lync to Skype and GoToMeeting to Google Hangouts, there’s plenty of options available for face-to-face meetings. They’re the kind of meetings where you brush your hair, pop on your lippy and make sure you look respectable up top without ever leaving your home office – you can sit in your sweats and uggs for all we care (or underwear if you really want to, whatever takes your fancy?! Just don’t tell your client, that might get a little creepy … )
And now (cue shameless plug!), Legaler is soon to launch its ultra secure (think end-to-end encryption) web and mobile communication platform for lawyers featuring a dedicated client portal, LiveAdvice video chat, messaging, file sharing, calendar bookings, email syncing, multi-party screen share and more. So your client can ‘meet’ you in a safe online environment, check in about their matter and message you all at the same time, pretty cool huh? So rather than send an unencrypted email, you can send private communications on the secure client portal. Private beta is closing very soon so jump on here if you want to sign up for beta and exclusive early access to the platform.
The final system you may want to use is Voice over IP (VOIP) which can be used to offer voice mail/messaging technology if you’re on your own or regularly out of the office, without an assistant to take your calls. And, most importantly, make sure your internet connection is sufficient to support your office operations and communications with clients. Link speed is super important with cloud technology so if you’re unsure bout your link speed, ask an IT consultant to give you advice about your internet options.
5. Legal Research
With so many free online legal research tools available (think AustLII and Barnet Jade in Australia), it can be tempting to opt out of a legal research system. If you’re working in a specialty area or you need access to case law fast, it might be a good idea to pay for a solid legal research product.
In the US, FastCase is a reasonably new entrant into the market offering a powerful app that gives users access to the entire Fastcase law library and legal research system of state and federal case law and statutes. When you search for cases through Fastcase, the best search results rise to the top of a list (similar to Google), allowing you to find the most important cases right away. The system includes primary law from all 50 states. Not bad for a free product!
Big players like Lexis Nexis and Thomson Reuters also have options for sole practitioners and small law firms which integrate with practice management and allow you to select certain practice areas without spending a bomb on the whole research package. These are great for ‘lean’ virtual practices (think Firm Central and Lexis Nexis Sole Practitioner).
6. Work Flow
Having a dispersed team and no fixed location makes productivity and workflow more important than ever. Streamline your work and allocate tasks with ease using apps and tools like Trello, Evernote, Notes and Basecamp. A lot of the practice management systems also have workflow features now so there’s no excuse for work overlaps and missed deadlines!
So there you have it – a quick guide to some of the basic tools you’ll need to get your virtual practice up and running. What other challenges are virtuals and solos facing in day to day practice? We’d love to hear from you with comments below or sign up to the platform and we can chat online!
See you on the inside!