If you’ve been thinking about starting a virtual law firm, or transitioning your existing bricks-and-mortar practice to a virtual model, now may be the time to start. An office space in a high rise in the central business district of your city is no longer required for running a law firm.
In fact, a virtual law office may be preferable for certain needs and situations—and in light of the evolving situation surrounding COVID-19, you must be able to make decisions for your business that keep you, your clients, and your family safe.
Whether you’re transitioning from a traditional law office to a virtual law firm, or whether you’re starting a law firm for the first time and making it a virtual practice, this guide has what you need to succeed.
Note: If you’re looking for information on how to work remotely, rather than on how to set up a virtual law firm, we recommend our guide, How to Work Remotely as a Lawyer.
What is a virtual law firm?
A virtual law firm is a law practice with a virtual office, rather than a bricks-and-mortar one. A virtual law firm can take many different forms: Lawyers and staff might work from home, or they might work in smaller satellite offices. Everyone might work in the same city or across different states. Lawyers might never meet clients in person, or they might meet them occasionally in offices rented specifically for client meetings.
There are a few advantages to running a virtual law firm over a traditional one. First, you’ll have less overhead, because you won’t need to rent a large office or pay for larger printers, fax machines, and other office equipment (or the associated upkeep). Additionally, virtual law offices tend to use cloud-based software, meaning they don’t have to deal with the cost of storing, maintaining, and running on-premise servers for non-cloud-based systems.
Lawyers and staff who work at virtual firms also enjoy more flexibility: They can work from home as needed, or anywhere else, and are likely able to work flexible hours when needed. In a modern world where clients are increasingly demanding more flexibility too, having a virtual law firm can be a boon for client relationship management too.
Of course, there can be disadvantages to running a virtual firm: Maintaining work-life balance when working from a home office takes a fair degree of willpower, and if you’re used to working in a traditional law office, the transition can be challenging.
For the determined lawyer, opening or transitioning to a virtual law practice might be simpler than you expect—and the benefits of being able to work from home when one needs to far outweigh the challenge of the initial learning curve for many.
How to start a virtual law firm
Follow the steps below to quickly and successfully start your virtual law firm.
1. Write your virtual law firm business plan
This step is important whether starting a virtual practice means you’re starting your own law firm for the first time, or whether you’re transitioning a bricks-and-mortar practice to a virtual one (temporarily or permanently). This can be as in-depth as you have time for, but it’s worth thinking through how your virtual business will operate up front, as this can save you headaches down the road.
If you’re transitioning to a virtual practice, you may want to simply look at your existing plan and update it. Your virtual law firm business plan should include the following elements:
- Executive summary: One-page, high-level overview of all the key information in your business plan.
- Firm description: Type of services offered, legal structure, geographies served, etc.
- Market analysis: Competitor analysis, revenue projections, etc.
- Marketing strategy: Unique selling proposition, marketing goals, action plan.
- Financial plan: Budget, financial projections.
For more guidance on business plan writing, read our post on how to write a law firm business plan.
2. Set up your virtual law office
You’re not working at a traditional law office, but you’ll still need to work somewhere. Where will you work, and what will you need? Will you work from home, or elsewhere? What type of setup do you want? Do you need a standing desk and three large monitors, or do you prefer to work off your laptop?
We’ll cover this in-depth later on, but your virtual law office is worth thinking about early on: You’ll be spending most of your days here, and you’re not bound by the conventions of a traditional office, so think through what you’ll need for maximum productivity.
3. Think through administrative workflows
At a virtual law firm, lawyers and staff can’t walk past each other’s desks or knock on office doors for quick chats to get questions answered or assign small tasks. The osmotic flow of information that happens at a traditional office is more tempered over virtual connections, so it’s imperative that you have an extra clear definition of how administrative processes will work at your firm.
Talk through the lawyers and staff on your team to find out what will be most efficient for them. Start with the questions below to spark discussion:
- How will you handle initial consultations? Intaking new clients?
- Where should mail be sent and how will it be distributed?
- How will you handle meetings? (If a lawyer needs to meet with a client, who’s responsible for booking the space?)
- For internal communications, where will each type of conversation take place? (Email, chat, video meetings, phone calls?)
- What apps and tools will your firm use for which purposes?
- How will you track productivity at your firm?
Again, this is just a starting point. Depending on your practice area, there may be more specific processes and workflows you’ll need to think through as well. And, if you’re transitioning to a virtual law office as a result of the situation surrounding COVID-19, you may need to think through some additional processes and protocols to keep your firm and clients healthy and safe (avoiding client meetings unless absolutely necessary, for example).
Once you’ve decided on administrative workflows, make sure they’re recorded somewhere for easy reference. Check in with your team regularly about what’s working and what isn’t, and remain open to adapting processes as necessary.
4. Build a strong internal culture
Creating clear administrative workflows will help create structure and stability for lawyers, staff, and clients, but it’s also important to invest in a strong culture for your remote law firm.
Since lawyers and staff won’t see each other every day in the office, you’ll need to make a sustained, deliberate effort to build a strong law firm culture—but the investment will be worth it. A two year study by Google revealed that high performing teams all have one thing in common: psychological safety. You can create psychological safety by building trust and connection on your team, and you can do that virtually by:
- Planning daily or weekly video check-ins between lawyers, staff, and teams to create a point of connection and visibility into each other’s work (important: stick to short updates and a strict time limit, as these meetings can easily run over)
- Giving the team virtual ways to connect, such as virtual team events (try a limerick contest for St. Patrick’s day, or a best office mug competition, or a virtual lunch)
- Defining (or re-committing to) your firm’s vision and values to give the team a clear framework to align around.
There are plenty of other tactics for keeping teams connected and creating a strong culture at your virtual law firm as well. Focus on what’s best for the staff and lawyers on your team, and on creating a virtual environment that will help everyone succeed.
5. Plan for an exceptional virtual client experience
You may not meet clients in-person as a virtual law firm, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still provide an exceptional client experience. As Clio CEO and Co-founder Jack Newton writes in his book, The Client-Centered Law Firm, providing great client experiences isn’t about wowing clients: It’s about meeting expectations. It’s about giving them what they want and need for their specific situation.
And right now, at least part of their specific need likely involves avoiding unnecessary contact with others to slow the spread of COVID-19 or to protect an immunocompromised loved one.
If you’re starting a virtual law firm for the first time, talk to other lawyers, and look to industry data in places like the Legal Trends Report to get an idea of what clients expect and how you can provide a solid legal experience. If you’re transitioning a bricks and mortar firm online, temporarily or permanently, communicate change clearly with your clients, and discuss workflows and new communications processes with them.
If something doesn’t work, stay open to adapting to meet your clients’ needs. For example, maybe your client prefers text updates to email updates. Stay laser-focused on providing a good client experience in ways that are efficient for your firm as well, but recognize that you may hit some bumps as you adjust. The important thing is to keep lines of communication open.
6. Promote your virtual practice
Whether your law practice is traditional or virtual, you’ll still need to promote it. If you’re starting a new virtual practice, you’ll need a website that makes it easy for clients to see what you offer and contact you for your services, and that’s optimized to be found in search engines. These articles can help:
Still, potential new clients are unlikely to find your website on their own, without a referral from a past client or another lawyer. To connect with more potential clients, you’ll need to promote your firm in other places as well to help drive visitors to your website. These articles can help with that:
You can also promote your virtual firm in-person at networking events, community events, and more (though we wouldn’t advise doing so currently: Follow local advisories in your area on social distancing, isolation, or shelter in place in light of the current COVID-19 outbreak).
If you’re transitioning a traditional office to a virtual law firm, clearly communicate the change with all clients, staff, and businesses who may bring regular deliveries to your office. In the current climate, your ability to adapt to a virtual setup may mean you’re able to help more clients who are unable to get help elsewhere, so it’s important your community knows that you’re available.
Setting up your virtual law office
To have a productive virtual law firm, you need the right setup. You’ll want to think through what you need, and talk to lawyers and staff about what they need to be productive, before investing in office furniture and technologies.
There are a number of considerations to take into account, but the list below should be a good starting point.
Office space and furniture
Where will you work? Do you have a space you could use as a home office, or a home office already set up? Ideally, you’ll have a room where you can have some privacy and lots of natural light, but anywhere with a desk and a place to sit will work in a pinch.
If you need to share space with others, try to sit with your back to a wall so that confidential client information on your screen can’t be seen by others. Ask all staff and lawyers to do the same.
Whether a laptop or a desktop computer, make sure you’ve got a powerful machine that will enable you to have clear video calls and work on cases uninterrupted. You’ll also need a strong internet connection.
One important tip from Melanie Leonard of Streamlined Legal: Make sure everyone on the team has a separate computer for work and personal use. You don’t want your team working on a shared computer with others in the house, so keep client information confidential by keeping computers separate.
Make sure everyone has a printer in their working location so that they’re able to print documents when needed. That said, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to set up an industrial printer/scanner combo in your home office, so prepare to print sparingly and go paperless with your virtual law firm as much as possible.
An important piece of a virtual law office is the ability to share everything online, so it’s imperative that everyone at the firm is able to scan and upload documents to the firm’s practice management system when needed. Consider getting portable scanners for your team so that everyone is able to scan documents wherever they are. For those with smaller office spaces, portable scanners take up less room.
Another tip from Melanie: If you’re in a pinch, there are many apps that will allow you to scan documents using your phone. For example, Dropbox has a document scanning feature.
To ensure everyone sounds professional on client calls, make sure that you and your team have good quality headsets for video calls or VOIP phone calls.
You might be virtual, but that doesn’t mean highlighters, sticky notes, staplers, and pens are off-limits. Make a list of the office supplies you and your team will need, and make sure you’re fully stocked before your virtual firm launches.
Virtual law firm software checklist
As a virtual law firm, the software you use is a key factor in your firm’s success. Since you and your team won’t be sharing an office (and you may not even be meeting clients in person), the performance and security of your tech tools are paramount.
Take your time, vet multiple options, and above all else, ensure any software you choose is secure and encrypted.
This list of basics should get you started. Depending on your practice area, you may want to consider other solutions as well (for example, litigators may want to invest in online legal research tools), but we recommend starting with the basics and building from there. You may not know what you truly need until you’re actually running your virtual law firm.
Cloud-based practice management software
Your practice management software will be the place your firm keeps matters and information organized, tracks time and expenses, creates calendar events, and approves invoices. It’s possible to fulfill your case management needs with a group of individual tools for each function, but using one unified platform saves time and removes much of the risk of error that comes with duplicate data entry.
With cloud-based practice management software like Clio Manage, you can access, share, and collaborate on important case details from anywhere. Additionally, features like the Firm Dashboard help your firm track productivity, and you can see how individuals in the firm are performing as well.
Cloud-based document storage
As a virtual law firm, it’s critical that you be able to access important case documents from wherever you’re working. To meet this need, we recommend storing documents in the cloud. Many cloud-based solutions offer plenty of customization and robust search capabilities, making it easy to find what you need quickly.
Internal communication software
If you’ll be working with a team of lawyers and staff at your virtual law firm, consider investing in dedicated internal communications tools. Conducting conference calls using Voice over IP (VOIP) phone services for every interaction is one way to do things, but it might not be the most efficient.
Chat apps like Slack offer the ability to send quick messages and confirmations, and you’ll be able to create separate channels within the app for different matters and firm areas as needed. One disclaimer: Chat programs like Slack can be more distracting than helpful if not set up correctly, so if you choose to use something like this, be sure to set it up in a way that helps avoid distractions.
VoIP phone provider
A VOIP phone service is something that’s definitely worth investing in for virtual firms. Why? Sure, lawyers and staff can give out their personal phone numbers, but it’s likely they want to keep that information private. And, a VOIP service will make it appear that all calls are coming from the firm’s phone number, ensuring a professional appearance and letting clients know that the right person is calling. Options include Vonage, Corvum, Nextiva, or Jive.
Cloud-based client relationship management software
A virtual law firm means virtual client intake. Keeping new client information organized is critical to making sure no potential clients fall through the cracks, and no follow-ups get missed.
Client relationship management software like Clio Grow helps with intake, follow-up scheduling, e-signatures, and more to keep the entire client intake process streamlined and simple. What’s more, if you use both Clio Grow and Clio Manage as the Clio Suite, you can easily sync information over when a new client signs on to create a new matter—no double data entry required.
Secure client portal
To keep documents, sensitive communications, invoices, and more secure and confidential, we recommend using a secure client portal to share information and communicate with clients. For virtual law firms, this can be especially helpful: You can give clients access to their cases so that they’re able to check in on case information themselves, saving you time on updates and virtual meetings.
Part of your subscription to Clio Manage, Clio Connect is a secure client portal that lets you easily share whatever you need with clients.
Virtual receptionist services
If you’re a solo or if you work at a small firm, a virtual receptionist service can help ensure no call into your virtual law firm gets missed. If you’re on a larger team, this type of service can help direct calls. Either way, these types of services are worth considering based on the sheer time and distraction they’d save you and your team. There are plenty of options available.
Online payment services
If you’re not meeting clients in the office, getting paid by check will be even more cumbersome than it was at a traditional law firm. For virtual firms, offering to accept payment via credit card might be a better fit. Solutions like Clio Payments allow lawyers to operate in compliance with trust accounting rules, and allow clients to pay bills quickly and easily via a secure link.
Ethics of virtual law firms
More and more law firms are going virtual, but there are some ethical considerations to pay special attention to if you’re running a virtual law practice versus a traditional one.
First, a small number of states require lawyers to have a physical office space. Check your states’ requirements on this front to make sure you’re following the rules with your virtual practice.
Beyond that, it’s worth paying extra attention to data security and client confidentiality as a virtual law firm. More of your communications will take place online versus in-person, so it’s crucial to make sure all channels are encrypted and secure.
Examples of virtual law firms
As a virtual law firm, Vanst Law exists wherever its attorneys choose to practice. Cynthia Morgan-Reed, the firm’s Founder & CEO, started Vanst law with a goal to foster diversity within the legal industry, and also to show small firm and solo lawyers that they can achieve greater financial success and work-life balance by re-imagining the ways a legal practice can operate.
The virtual model has definitely helped with that: With it, attorneys at Vanst have more freedom and flexibility, and Cynthia was able to achieve her vision of paying attorneys 70% of what they collect.
Vanst law stands out as a shining example of what’s possible when attorneys think outside the box. For more examples of virtual law firms, read this Q&A with virtual law firm leaders from across the US.
To learn more about building a virtual law firm, attend this webinar with Vanst Law on May 12, 2020.
Whether you already use cloud-based software and are thinking of letting go of your office space, or whether you’re thinking of moving off of a more traditional model for the first time, a virtual law firm is within your reach. Follow the best practices in this guide to get your virtual office up-and-running, and you’ll be off to a solid start. Just ensure you take stock of how your firm’s processes and tools are working out, and prepare to make changes and improvements along the way. If it seems overwhelming, don’t be afraid to ask a consultant for help getting set up.
Coordinating across multiple offices or between large teams of lawyers and staff working from home can be difficult, but it’s not impossible—it might even be easier than you think. If plenty of firms are doing it already, yours can too.
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