Cynthia Morgan-Reed, Vanst Law
Before attorney Cynthia Morgan-Reed started her own law firm, she experienced firsthand how longstanding biases and behaviors can negatively affect women and minorities working in the legal industry. So, she decided to change the culture by founding Vanst Law: a diverse, virtual law firm with lawyers who work remotely and cover multiple practice areas—powered by the Clio Suite, the industry’s only end-to-end software solution covering the entire legal client journey.
In 2019, Vanst Law won Clio’s Reisman Award for Best New Law Firm.
Changing the culture, one attorney at a time
“I went to law school to be a different kind of lawyer,” says Cynthia Morgan-Reed, Founder & CEO of Vanst Law, a rapidly-growing virtual law firm which is technically ‘headquartered’ in San Diego, CA, but truly exists wherever its attorneys choose to practice.
“Initially, I wanted to practice public interest law and save the world,” Cynthia says. “Instead, after many law firm experiences where I earned the right to call myself a survivor … I launched Vanst Law because I know that every attorney has the right to live a meaningful life and practice law. And every attorney deserves to be paid what they are worth.”
For Cynthia and for Vanst Law, the mission is twofold: to foster diversity within the legal industry by empowering legal professionals who historically have faced barriers to career success, 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.
Cynthia’s virtual law firm stands as Exhibit A for this mission, and the “explosive attorney growth” Cynthia has witnessed at the practice demonstrates that the model is working as much for her staff as it is for her clients.
Behind the scenes—helping Vanst Law streamline its operations and maximize its lawyers’ efficiency—is the Clio Suite, comprised of Clio Manage’s cloud-based legal practice management software and Clio Grow’s client intake and legal CRM (client relationship management) software. The Clio Suite enables Vanst Law’s attorneys to work remotely, automate administrative tasks, and become more profitable, all from one central platform that integrates with the firm’s existing software applications.
Read on to learn why Cynthia founded Vanst Law; what makes the firm successful; how Clio’s legal technology propels the firm forward; and how Cynthia plans to use her virtual law firm model to change the future of legal.
Finding the right path
For the first two decades of her legal career, Cynthia followed a traditional legal path and worked her way to becoming a partner at two San Diego law firms. Along the way, she discovered systemic injustices that prevented women and individuals from underrepresented groups from being given the opportunities and compensation they deserved.
After leaving one law firm where she was being paid far less than her male colleagues, Cynthia decided she wanted to try something different.
“I didn’t want to go to another firm—I had already been at three other firms by that point, and I felt that any other firm was just going to be the same,” she says.
Taking stock of her career, Cynthia realized that she already had a strong book of business; what she didn’t have, to that point in her career, was the flexibility, work-life balance, autonomy, and income she desired.
“Unfortunately, my story is not unique,” she says, “but what I did about it is still considered unique.”
When her first child was four months old, Cynthia started her own solo practice. Three years later, she took her desire to change the culture of law and launched Vanst Law.
A new kind of practice
From the beginning, Cynthia planned for Vanst Law to be different. She also identified that the firm would have to grow in order to continue being profitable—and that meant developing a new business model that would enable her to bring in additional attorneys who felt similarly about transforming the industry.
“I knew that I wanted the firm to be equitable—I knew that I wanted the firm to allow people to have the freedom and flexibility to live a meaningful life and practice law, instead of barely living a life and practicing law,” she says.
“And I knew I wanted to focus on women and minorities more than any other group because those are the folks that do not ever make it to the top of that pyramid scheme which is the law firm life.”
So, she decided to make Vanst Law a virtual legal practice, as this would drastically reduce overhead to give lawyers the ability to practice the way they want, have control over their client books, and be more fulfilled in their professional and personal lives.
Guess what: It’s working.
Making virtual a reality
To create the practice she wanted, Cynthia started with a straight-forward compensation formula, under which attorneys make 70% of what they collect.
She combined that with a model in which all attorneys are partners, with their own books of business. They set their own rates, choose their own schedules, and decide how many hours they’ll work each month.
Additionally, because Vanst Law is a virtual firm, attorneys don’t have to commute or spend precious time on non-essential office activities and meetings.
“Not having a centralized office significantly cuts out bloated overhead costs and allows attorneys to earn more while passing savings on to clients,” Cynthia says.
And attorneys have taken notice. In its first six months, Vanst Law added one partner a month—and, with more work than the firm’s existing attorneys can handle, Cynthia anticipates doubling in size in the near future.
“We have added attorneys strategically to provide a suite of options to our business clients, with the goal of providing them with a ‘one-stop shop’ legal experience,” she says. “Our clients’ reaction to us providing compatible services has been excellent.”
All of Vanst Law’s attorneys have years of experience working on complex matters and are widely respected as leaders in their fields. They also all believe in the firm’s mission and values.
“Everyone knows when they’re coming to us that there’s a possibility that this will be the last firm they’ll have to join,” Cynthia says, “because they’ll be able to find satisfaction—and they’ll be able to find the humane, equitable treatment that they should’ve had from day one.”
The benefits of a virtual law firm
Low overhead, high ceiling
One of the common mistakes solo and small firm attorneys make, according to Cynthia, is spending a lot of money on a beautiful office.
“They think they need to look and feel and sound like a big firm, and have all the bells and whistles,” she says. “They get a receptionist, they get lovely furniture, nice potted plants—all of this crazy stuff that you don’t need.”
“Instead of having these huge personnel costs and overhead, I am going to go and teach nationally to these smaller firms how you can become a virtual firm and put more money into your pocket … and you do that through using products that are cloud-based like the Clio Suite.”
Unlike a decade ago, Cynthia notes, the right tools are now widely available for legal professionals to run their practices remotely, making virtual law firms not just a possibility but an advantage. From enhanced cybersecurity and protection of client data to greener and more environmentally-friendly operations, there are many benefits to running this new model of legal practice.
“You can do this. You can do it effectively, you can do it better, and that’s where I want to really see this revolution go,” Cynthia says. “Once people figure out the virtual model which can allow them to work much more cheaply, from other types of office spaces or from home, I think they’ll put more money into their pocket, offer their clients a lower billable rate, and have better satisfaction overall.”
Increased work (and life) satisfaction
“I’m sitting right now in sweatpants and a T-shirt, and I got my workout in this morning, and I had a leisurely breakfast, and I don’t have to answer to anybody because I’m running my own book and I have my own clients.”
For Cynthia, the above statement would have been a pipedream in the past—and now, it’s her everyday workplace reality. Above that, she says, is the fact that she’s part of a community of like-minded legal professionals who are trying to create the same type of work-life balance that she is.
“I have the ability to live my value system and be a happier attorney because I don’t have this traditional expectation of being at my desk from nine to six and making sure people see me at my desk, working hard,” she says. “I billed more this month than I’ve probably billed in any month in the last seven years, and I’m taking today off because I can.”
Creating a practice with Clio
Breaking the mold
Cynthia says Vanst Law uses technology to make its attorneys’ lives easier, more productive, profitable, and happy. The core type of technology the firm employs is cloud-based, as the Clio Suite is, because this allows the firm to provide exceptional client service and create a culture of constant collaboration and support—no matter where the firm’s attorneys and staff might be based.
In general, Cynthia says this is a departure from the norm at most law firms, which tend to be slow to embrace change and adopt new technological processes. “I think law firms generally are not well run, and that’s the difference,” she says. “At Vanst, we embrace technology. We are cloud-based, we are a more technologically-advanced firm, and we’re always looking at new endeavors and metrics that we can use to better ourselves and be more strategic as a firm.”
When it was founded, Vanst Law initially used one of Clio Manage’s competitors to run its practice management operations. “We had many recommendations to use Clio and we didn’t,” Cynthia recalls, “and then we had some issues with that competitor. We figured out pretty quickly that we needed to switch.”
So, a few months after trying the other company’s software, the practice switched to Clio. And one of the things that immediately impressed Cynthia were Clio’s integrations; the Clio App Directory features over 200 different apps that sync with Clio’s software, creating an expansive experience for legal professionals across many firm sizes and practice areas.
“I needed to be sure that the software I’d use could grow with my firm, and Clio had the best plug-ins (integrations), so it was clear that Clio was investing in the software in ways that the competitors weren’t—at least not in a way that I thought I could ensure the growth of my firm over a longer period of time.”
Now, when she thinks about what her firm would be like if she hadn’t switched to the Clio Suite, Cynthia says her firm’s operations would be slower, and the firm’s collections would be lower.
“Our collections are phenomenal,” she says, describing the difference that Clio Manage has made for the firm’s billing process. “We collect on what we bill, and I absolutely think Clio Manage is the deciding factor on allowing us to do that and do it well.”
Additionally, Cynthia cites Clio’s award-winning, 24/5 Customer Support as one of the key differentiators that makes a giant impact for her firm. “We can get answers right away, and I love that,” she says.
Clio Manage, featuring Clio Payments
When asked about some of the specific ways that Clio Manage has shaped her firm’s success, Cynthia says that the leading legal practice management software has enabled her to improve Vanst Law’s conflict checking and engagement letter processes.
“I love the fact that all of our attorneys are empowered to be able to go in and put their information in for the conflict check, and then use that same information to populate client and matter information everywhere else that we need it,” she says.
For billing, Vanst Law uses Clio Manage to send out an accounts receivable report every week, which is easy to monitor, and the firm sends reminder invoices to clients on the 15th of every month, which she says is very easy to do using the software.
Regarding Clio Payments, which is Clio Manage’s built-in credit card processing functionality powered by LawPay, Cynthia remembers being hesitant at first. She didn’t want to pay a credit card processing fee, and all her clients up to that point had been paying her by check.
“But,” she says, “my firm is very different than the traditional firm, and my attorneys don’t get paid until they collect. So, there was really no question about transitioning to electronic credit card payments to ensure that our attorneys could get paid as quickly as possible.”
“And I think Clio Payments is a huge convenience to clients as well,” she adds. “For the client to be able to just make that retainer deposit onto a credit card is critical in terms of us being able to get started, and then us having the security and peace of mind knowing that we have that money in our account immediately.”
Clio Grow, the client intake and legal CRM software
Clio started as a practice management software company, but around the time that Cynthia founded Vanst Law, Clio launched Clio Grow, which combined with Clio Manage to form the full Clio Suite—the legal industry’s first ever end-to-end software solution, covering the entire legal client lifecycle from the first step of client intake to the payment of the final invoice.
Before discovering Clio Grow, Cynthia says, she had no system whatsoever for handling client intake; all she did was take notes in her phone.
Now, Cynthia uses Clio Grow to immediately get potential new clients into Vanst Law’s electronic database. From there, it’s extremely simple to perform a conflict check, populate an engagement letter, and utilize client and matter information with many of Clio’s integration partners’ software applications.
“Using Clio Grow with DocuSign, for example—that’s just magic,” Cynthia says. “Previously, people would be like, ‘Well, I can scan this, but I’m not at my scanner. I’m on vacation right now, I’ll be back at my desk tomorrow.’ And now there’s no delay—you can do this on your smartphone, everyone has access to it, it’s amazing.”
One of the other key ways that Clio Grow provides value to the firm, according to Cynthia, is that it makes it easy for her to track her most valuable referral sources.
“I can track directly who is referring me cases,” she says. “I can look that information up, I can keep track of it, I can put a note in there that says, ‘Yes, I did send them a bottle of champagne. I did send them a thank you card.’ You know, all of that allows me to ensure that I have happy referral sources.”
Additionally, Clio Grow lets Cynthia understand why potential clients are or are not retaining her firm’s services—not only anecdotally, but with data reports she can easily monitor over time.
“Those are the kind of metrics we’re using, and that’s why we love Clio Grow because it allows us to fill out so much information we can keep track of. You know: ‘This was a potential client, this client refused service, this was a client that’s still pending.’ And then the ability in the notes section to put as many detailed notes as we want is really helpful.”
“So, I think those are revolutionary processes that the average firm doesn’t have.”
Envisioning the future
Long-term, Cynthia doesn’t merely plan for Vanst Law to be a successful virtual law firm—she wants it to represent a new breed of law firm which can inspire countless other attorneys to practice law remotely as well.
“I’m going to launch Vanst nationally, and I’m going to do it as a consultative model where I’ll give hope and help to attorneys, so small firms can start making good money. Because for me, the bottom line is always the bottom line—if you love what you do but you’re not making a lot of money at it … then you’re doing something wrong.”
Cynthia plans for Vanst Law to grow aggressively, expanding first in California and eventually across the U.S., thanks to its virtual office model. Part of that growth will include teaching other attorneys to create their own virtual firms, even if those firms are separate from Cynthia’s.
“If they want to join Vanst that’s awesome, but if they want to do their own thing that’s going to offer them better satisfaction and better services to their client, then why not teach people how to do that?” Cynthia says. “So we’re going to grow, that’s the future, and we’re excited for Clio to grow with us.”