Virtual law firms—firms that use technology to serve clients rather than run a brick-and-mortar office—are a rising trend across the country. What is it like to work in a virtual environment instead of a traditional firm? This is an interview with Ridgeway Woulfe, an associate at a California-based virtual law firm. It has attorneys throughout the country, but it exclusively practices California employment-related law, and its attorneys maintain California licenses. The virtual firm’s name and some other information have been redacted at the firm’s request to protect its interests, and the interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Robert Bryson (RB): Tell me about yourself. Where did you go to school, when did you pass the bar, what brought you to your current firm?
Ridgeway Woulfe (RW): Well, my name is Ridgeway Woulfe, and I graduated from John Marshall Law School. I passed the California bar in 2016. I’m in employment law. When I moved to California, I started taking contract work, and often I was assigned employment cases, so I eventually parlayed that into an associate’s position with a virtual law firm.
RB: Tell me about what it’s like to work for a virtual firm.
RW: We specialize in California employment law. The idea is that we can reduce overhead by getting rid of traditional office spaces and associated costs, which allows us to take more risky or borderline cases that your traditional firm may pass on. We’re exclusively plaintiff’s side. We work cases up via the phone and the internet with clients. I can’t speak for the whole firm, but my team does try to get a settlement that is fair to all parties. However, we also have an in-house litigation department in the event we can’t settle, and we also refer some cases to outside firms.
RB: So, pretty standard stuff as far as law firms go?
RW: Yes, because our overhead is reduced we can assist clients that brick-and-mortar firms couldn’t, but in general our goals aren’t any different than any other firm.
RB: Do you negotiate for attorneys’ fees as part of the settlements?
RW: Yes, California has a lot of rules that impose attorneys’ fees on the employer if they are found at fault. Rather than funding enforcement within workplaces itself, California instead incentivizes attorneys to ensure legal compliance.
RB: Tell me about your firm’s structure. Where are the attorneys located?
RW: Most of us are located throughout California, spread pretty evenly. We do have a few attorneys who are out-of-state. Most of them started living in California and then moved out for personal reasons, but they maintain their California license. The only issue is the time difference, but we use phones and the internet to coordinate cases effectively.
As far as the structure, the owner sits atop the organization. An operations manager oversees the firm as a whole. Supervisors are involved in all teams’ operations and strategy, and they also coordinate between attorneys and support staff. Below that overarching management structure, supervising attorneys assist with legal teams’ communicative and strategic issues. Below that, we work in teams, with a supervisor and lead negotiator on each team. We also have some ancillary departments, such as litigation, that handle special cases, a referral department that handles initial client intake, and your standard law firm support staff departments such as accounting and admin. Being a virtual firm, having a skilled technology department is particularly important.
RB: Are all of these departments virtual?
RW: We have a home office to receive mail and handle administrative work—support staff issues. Other forms of work may be performed at the home office, but I don’t interact with the support departments all that much. The vast majority of the work is done online, such as referrals, litigation, and legal teams.
RB: If your firm can’t settle, and the litigation department cannot take the case, how do you handle referrals?
RW: Sometimes we refer cases immediately if we can’t handle it internally; we usually refer class actions. Since we take riskier cases, we are constantly engaging in a cost-benefit analysis to determine if it is financially feasible to handle the case.
RB: Do you have standing referral arrangements with outside counsel?
RW: Yes, we don’t look around on a listserv every time we need to refer a case.
RB: In your opinion, do you think this style of practice is viable in other areas of law? If yes, what types and why?
RW: I think this structure could work for just about any type of law. The main impediment is how much face-to-face time you need with clients and co-workers. This kind of firm does take a lot of work—yes it is counter-intuitive—more than brick-and-mortar law firms, because you don’t have the benefit of in-person communication and so need to work extra hard to ensure that everyone is on the same page. You really take for granted the benefit of facial expressions and body language to communicate. For example, humor and sarcasm do not translate well in an email if you don’t have a previous, in-person relationship already developed.
RB: How do you process clients?
RW: We have an intake department that handles the initial issues. Their job is to filter out cases we can’t take. For example, we get calls for criminal defense all the time, which we obviously can’t handle because you can’t conduct an effective criminal defense over the phone. From there, the potential client completes a questionnaire that goes over the basics of what we need to assess their claims. The case is then assigned to a legal team, and someone like me will reach out to the client to explore the details of their case and search for all viable claims.
RB: Is there a policy on when to extricate from a case? Or is it up to each legal team?
RW: It’s up to each team. We determine whether we can feasibly get recovery for our client. In some cases, we run it by upper management. But management primarily relies on our team leaders, because they’re the ones engaged with opposing counsel and the client, so they know the case and know how far we can push it. We also sometimes close cases because clients stop responding to our communications.
RB: How many cases do you or your team handle?
RW: My team handles about 160 cases, but it varies depending upon the size and the experience of the team.
RB: What is your main complaint with this model, as opposed to a traditional firm?
RW: The biggest difficulty is not having face-to-face interactions. You can really take for granted the impact of being able to read facial expressions and body language, especially when dealing with supervising attorneys or upper management, I find myself being very careful and deliberate in emails because I don’t want what I’m saying to be taken the wrong way. Since we’re virtual, it’s more difficult to build rapport and a shorthand for understanding each other.
Another difficulty is in understanding when it is a good time to discuss issues with others. In a traditional office, you can see when someone is on the phone or intently working. With our firm, you have to communicate without knowing when you will be able to get a reply.
Honestly, I feel awkward talking about non-work things with my coworkers, sometimes because it’s all over the phone, which feels more formal – like we’re all on the clock. Your classic “water cooler” moments don’t happen in a virtual firm. So, sometimes it’s hard to build rapport.
RB: What software programs do you use?
RW: We use Skype Business and Action Step, which is for case management – it handles our billing, notes, document storage, and we use it to share files with clients. We have an HR program called Bamboo and the typical Microsoft programs, Outlook and such. We also use Ring Central, which allows us to make calls through the computer; it works like a regular cell phone.
RB: Do you ever run across clients who aren’t tech savvy? How do you handle clients like that?
RW: Yes, we do. Anything we generate online can be physically produced and mailed. For example, the questionnaire can be completed online, but if necessary our office will mail a print copy with a self-addressed envelope. But we do try to exhaust the online solutions first.
RB: Anything else you want to add?
RW: I do see value in cutting costs to benefit the client. I like that we are bringing access to the law for people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford it or meet the minimum controversy amounts to make it worth it for a law firm to take the case. I think my firm and other firms like it are pushing the law where it needs to go.
About the Author
Robert Bryson is an attorney practicing in San Diego, CA. Contact him at email@example.com.