Virtual Law Offices

Between Lawyers has been discussing virtual law firms for some time; they even have a dedicated category. On Monday, fellow blogger Ron Friedmann chimed in with his post The Office is Dead.

So, at this point in time, how realistic is the idea of an entirely virtual firm? I wouldn’t go as far as Bruce and say that ‘face-to-face’ is a fundamental necessity, but I certainly have doubts.

Conceptually, I think many of us techie-types see the day coming when office space won’t be as essential. Tool wise, we’re certainly getting closer. But the idea of taking an existing legal culture and moving it towards being a virtual entity? Not a task I’d envy. Plus, it really doesn’t fit with the current business model. At this point in time, the majority of deals are being done in person, with firms like Osler’s betting this will continue. Relationships mean everything, and when the majority of your workforce aren’t virtual marketers, you bet on what your workforce knows. Point is, office space is part of that, so I don’t see a revolt coming anytime soon.

The trend of using high priced space exclusively for client meetings may come around, and the creation of ‘client reception areas’ in many recent firm renovations point in that direction. I could see a metropolis-hinterland kind of effect, where firms put the rainmaker partners in downtown offices, and farm ‘the work’ out to less expensive premises. That of course, would require a clear separation between lawyer classes. Another can of worms that would be very difficult to resolve within big firm cultures… If this concept was undertaken, I’d bet on the support roles leading the exodus.

The more likely scenario would be for someone to break the mold, and start with a fresh new firm. Recruit around the concept, train around the concept, and establish new business methods. If the virtual firm is to come about, right now I’d bet on a firm of under 50 lawyers, and probably under 30. I’d also guess that we’re at least a couple years away. Within the next 10 years? Maybe.

Slawyer thoughts?

Comments

  1. Gosh darn it, I don’t know why you would even develop less expensive premises. Just have everyone work from home. And if you are going to do that, why have a permanent staff? We should all just be free agents, coming together in collaboration as needed. I work with an IT consultant who does just that on his IT projects. No big company, just a lot of self-employed individuals who take on projects together as they have time and inclination. The trick is to be good at what you do so that you get called upon frequently.

    And those pesky law books? I’ll just house them in my basement and look things up for everyone when Google doesn’t have the answer. At a small fee. ;-)

    You think I’m joking, don’t you?

  2. Only about the “small fee” part.

  3. The trouble with putting your rainmakers downtown and leaving everyone else in the ‘burbs is that there would be no one to mentor and develop new rainmakers. Then who is around to hook all the big new clients?

  4. I work with a ‘virtual’ group now … handle intakes across the country from various locales, including 1 in a rural Alabama town. Much cheaper staff wise than using a NYC paralegal to answer the phone.

  5. Martha,
    I am afraid to say that, often, downtown rainmakers do not take the time to mentor their downtown juniors anyway… It would not make a big difference! Anyway, I think the virtual office aims at a different clientele, which uses other means (Google, LinkedIn, ClaimID, etc.) to choose their counsels. Therefore, the notion of “rainmaking” has to evolve. In fact, in a near future, I think many rainmakers from downtown offices will benefit from the mentoring of many juniors in a virtual offices. ;-)

  6. I think that we will adapt to “virtual” offices, but we need relationships and face-time.

    Architecture and Communication among Product Development Engineers by Thomas J. Allen, Cal. Mgt. Rev., Vol. 49, Winter 2007 at 25-27,

    This article summarizes some quantitative measures and qualitative observations regarding the effect of architecture on technical communication. It shows how the probability that two engineers or scientists in an organization will communicate declines rapidly with the distance between their work locations. It also addresses several objections to these observations and examines the relationships among different media, (i.e., face-to-face, telephone, electronic mail) and how each is affected by separation. Finally, it discusses some examples of architectural strategies for managing communication.

    There may be debate that lawyers and engineers exhibit fundamentally different character traits (though having spent a significant amount of my professional time with patent agents and lawyers, any differences I noted are not significant), the extrapolated conclusion is that the farther lawyers’ offices are from each other, even just a few feet, the less they communicate with each other. Once lawyers are more than about 50 metres apart, this study would indicate that their interactions and sharing of knowledge declines considerably, but falls no more. Law Management guru Rees Morrison adds:

    “Moreover, evidence from studies indicates that “vertical separation always has a more severe effect than an equivalent amount of horizontal separation” (at 33). It’s bad enough to have your lawyers scattered at a distance, but to place them on different floors of a building really dooms their communication (See my post of July 31, 2005 on the general counsel having a remote office.).” http://lawdepartmentmanagement.typepad.com/law_department_management/structure/index.html

  7. I’d say that virtual law offices will become more common much sooner than 10 years from now.

    I run the first completely virtual law office in North Carolina. I’m a solo practitioner and I run a general practice firm. My virtual law office was created by Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC and is a hosted, SaaS (software as a service) application. I’ve practiced this way for two years now with success.

    My clients appreciate the convenience and so far not meeting face-to-face has not been a problem. I provide the same legal services online as I would in person, perhaps even better because I have the opportunity to pause, think and type and delete before communicating with a client. Each client has his or her own homepage where they are updated regularly on their cases, and they can pay online, among other online functions that increase efficiency and convenience.

    I think this model would also work well in a 30 person firm and could be combined with a physical law office to really use the best of both worlds. There will always be clients and attorneys who want to meet face-to-face but there are others who are actually more comfortable handling transactions online (like they are will their banking and investing). I’m excited to see what the concept will bring to the legal profession.