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.