Although there are different kinds of virtual law firms, in general, these firms deliver legal services to clients using technology and the internet. They do not maintain a separate brick and mortar office where all of the firm’s employees work on a daily basis. Instead, employees of virtual law firms work in different places, often from their homes.
Even though they are working in different places – in some cases, even in different states or different countries – all of the firm’s employees are linked by technology; an internet telephone system allows calls to be answered by one employee and easily transferred to the appropriate party, and the firm’s files are stored electronically on a server that can be remotely accessed by anyone in the firm who needs them. Multiple people can work on a document at in real time from remote locations, and changes to the document are available immediately.
Many virtual firms also do have the ability to meet with clients or conduct meetings in an office or conference room when necessary. As a result, in many cases, the client may not even know that the firm is a “virtual” law firm.
Without a brick and mortar office, overhead is significantly reduced for virtual law firms. They do not have to worry about space for paper files, attorney offices, secretarial space and more. This often allows virtual firms to charge lower fees than traditional law firms.
Challenges of a Virtual Law Practice
But while there are many advantages to having a virtual law firm, there are challenges as well. Because virtual law firms rely on technology to communicate both internally and externally, the firm’s hardware and software must be constantly maintained and updated. Problems with the electric power or internet service can wreak havoc on the ability of lawyers and staff to communicate with each other and with clients, or to get work done.
Virtual law firms have to decide whether they will provide centralized services similar those provided by traditional law firms, including secretarial and paralegal help, an IT department, HR services and benefits, or whether the attorneys themselves will be required to determine how they will each handle these things for themselves and their own clients.
Collaboration can also be more challenging for virtual firms because the firm’s employees – whether attorneys or staff – are not interacting in person on a daily basis. This lack of in-person communication and fragmentation within virtual law firms can also make referrals difficult in a virtual firm when the members of the firm do not know each other and may not even be familiar with one another’s practices.
In a traditional law firm, even lawyers who do not regularly work together may see one another at firm functions, in the elevator, hallway or other shared spaces, or may have offices adjacent to one another. Lawyers in traditional offices are more likely to have coffee or lunch together and discuss the cases they are working on than lawyers who are a part of a virtual law office. This can make it easier for the lawyers to refer cases to one another because they are more familiar – and more comfortable – with the other attorneys in the firm and how they can help one another’s clients.
On the other hand, some virtual law firms are essentially a network of lawyers practicing in different geographic areas and in different practice areas, which can provide excellent opportunities for referrals if the firm has a good system in place. A good referral system makes it easy for lawyers in the firm to locate a fellow member of the firm by geography, practice area, and to refer matters to that lawyer and see the progress of those matters.