Technology continues to change the way lawyers do their jobs: Just consider how much easier and more accepted telecommuting has become over the past decade.
Now virtual law firms are directly competing with BigLaw firms and growing every day. We can look at virtual firms as boutique firms with the technology to potentially handle work on the scale of BigLaw firms, while giving lawyers flexibility and work/life balance. What’s not to like?
Greater professional flexibility: Lawyers can feel stuck in a rut of tradition when working at a brick and mortar firm. Working virtually means you can run your practice the way you see fit. It also expands your geographical reach—and not only when it comes to clients. Even though you may never meet face to face, you could very well have opportunities to collaborate with other lawyers you’d never come across in the office.
Better work/life balance: A lack of work/life balance is at the top of many a lawyer’s complaint list. Working with a virtual law firm means you can work from anywhere, whether it’s your own living room, a coffee shop, or in the sunny location where you’ve always wanted to live. Depending on client needs, working virtually may give you the flexible schedule most lawyers crave. This can be invaluable to parents, or lawyers who just don’t want to be tied to an exact daily schedule, and who make having a life outside of the office a priority.
Low overhead costs: This is one of the biggest draws of a virtual firm. Not having a physical office means no money needs to be spent on rent, furniture, computers, copiers, cleaning staff, and the like. (Lawyers can also operate as close to paper free as possible, lowering the cost to the planet as well.) The lack of some of these costs means virtual firms can try different fee structures that traditional firms are simply unable to entertain.
Lack of colleagues: Sure, your fellow lawyers can annoy you, and much of your work is quite solitary, but there is something to be said for going to an office full of other people. Having someone to bounce ideas off, or even just to shoot the breeze with for ten minutes while sipping coffee, can be an integral part of the work experience. Generally introverted people can be surprised by how much they miss having other people around.
Lack of support staff: Virtual law firms do not provide support staff, so lawyers who are used to having things proofread or copied or cite-checked for them will have to get used to doing those things themselves. There will be no secretary or executive assistant to answer calls and emails or make appointments. One option to contend with the lack of support is to hire your own staff—but of course, that would cut into your profits, so you’d have to weigh how badly you need the help against how much it will cost to get it.
Client perception: Clients, especially larger ones, tend to look for name-recognition and a solid reputation in a firm. Since virtual firms are not yet common and haven’t been around for very long, many will balk at working with them. Going from a brick and mortar firm to a virtual one will likely cost you some clients and keep others away, so you’ll need to weigh those losses as well as the possibility of working with fewer clients in general.
Whether a virtual law office will work for you will depend on many factors, including where you are in your career, how comfortable you are giving up some of the perks of a brick and mortar, and how many clients you’ll be able to retain. You’ll need to be honest about your ability to self-motivate and work without colleagues you see every day. Virtual firms are sure to continue to grow and may eventually become normalized, popular alternatives to physical firms—considering working with them may be just as expected as considering BigLaw versus a smaller firm.