The need for remote or off-site working arrangements and the rise of more “virtual” organizational models for law firms has been at the center of ongoing change in the legal sector. The World Economic Forum called flexible work, including virtual teams, “one of the biggest drivers of transformation.”
Driven by the need to work from anywhere, be closer to clients, reduce overhead, and retain talent, firms are seeing huge benefits in adopting remote working and, in many cases, starting out with a completely virtual model. Key to the success of remote working and virtual models is what level of process consistency and transparency are applied across all work being done.
Real Virtual Benefits
When we envisage “virtual law” firms, people typically think of legal practices where the lawyers operate from satellite offices or their homes, but operate as one firm through the use of technology, giving them the freedom to pick and choose their own working hours. This image is right, but it’s not the only option for virtual working. We love seeing how our customers take technology and use it in the creation of new and interesting business models to better serve their clients, such as franchise businesses, distributed law, legal networks as well as pure virtual law firms. There are also many more firms that are either hybrid virtual/traditional firms or simply regular “bricks and mortar” firms with a robust remote working policy. Having customers in all these categories, we have summarized what we see as the top benefits your firm can experience from adopting virtual work practices—regardless of what type of firm you are today!
10 Benefits of Virtual Working
1. Overhead Reduction
Real estate, people, infrastructure, technology and utility costs are all reduced in more virtual environments. Virtual law firms do not need dedicated physical offices for all their lawyers to work from. Real estate and office fit-out costs are therefore vastly reduced. While some costs associated with running home, satellite offices, or renting co-working spaces remain, these are typically much lower than the cost of running fully-serviced law firm offices. Virtual firms also typically have far fewer fixed staffing and administrative costs by using a combination of outsourced services, cloud-based communications, networks, and technology to reduce the need for these.
2. Attracting and Retaining Talent
Most law firms will say that their people are their most valuable assets. How can virtual ways of working help your firm attract & keep talent? Whether you are a smaller firm thinking about succession planning or a growing firm that needs to build your team, attracting and retaining talent is crucial. According to an international survey of lawyers, over 90% of respondents say flexible working is critical to improving diversity and 52% work in an organization where flexible working is in place. This flexibility is enabled by remote or virtual working practices. Firms who have embraced virtual ways of working are also more attractive to younger lawyers (the life-blood of any firm’s future) and staff who have grown up online and using mobile devices. They expect to be able to access work and information systems online, via mobile devices or by using any wi-fi enabled device. The best talent will choose to work for progressive firms, with up-to-date technology and with the efficiency of having remote access.
3. Flexible Resource Arrangements
Firms utilizing virtual teams tend to have fewer dedicated support resources—often outsourcing paralegal, marketing and library work to third parties as required and using remote secretarial and transcription services. These kinds of resources can be accessed flexibly as needed—ad hoc or through retainer arrangements.
This means less month-to-month pressure in terms of salaries and less time on team productivity management. The key to making this successful is utilizing technology to create real efficiency within your systems so that legal administration is greatly reduced, and fewer full-time support resources are needed.
4. Higher Earning Potential
With a reduction in overhead costs from the adoption of virtual ways of working, firms are able to offer lawyers more competitive remuneration—often a percentage of their billings. According to our virtual law customers, the biggest benefit of being a virtual firm is that because (with lots of good management) the costs of running the firm are greatly reduced, they have a considerable advantage in competition with other firms on remuneration. Linking back to talent attraction and retention.
5. Get Closer to Clients
Without the default option to have clients visit a law firm office, virtual working encourages lawyers to visit clients or meet them locally to spend time on their turf. Some offer onsite hours for recurring clients, giving clients time and access to discuss a range of issues for a set fee. The benefits of this are 1) the convenience to clients: it shows them their time is a priority. 2) More work: you will almost always come away with more projects than you went to talk to them about in the first place! 3) Getting closer to clients, spending time understanding their circumstances or business without them feeling too much pressure on the clock.
6. Let Technology Do the Legwork
There is no doubt that ever-improving legal technology has aided virtual firms, distributed/multi-location firms and virtual ways of working. Without the internet and technology that allows online access to clients and their files, these firms could not exist. Here are some examples of things virtual firms utilize that any law firm can adopt: 1) Virtual firms are finding the majority of their new clients via their website or other online environments. The right legal technology can connect these online searches by prospects with webforms to capture their details and feed information directly into client set-up & onboarding processes. 2) For some types of work, the “reach” of the internet is enabling them to find clients who would otherwise never get to know about the firm. 3) Sending automated or ad hoc communication to keep their clients and other parties up-to-date via in-matter email, client portals, text, blogs, social or other media. 4) Practice and case management that’s run as “Software as a Service” (Saas), releases lawyers from the worst aspects of IT support at the same time as allowing them access to all their client and firm’s information from wherever they are. Moving away from paper and landlines, telephone, fax, and post can all largely be converted into online or digital form with the added advantage that “the office” is wherever the fee-earner is working at that particular moment. These digital communication files can all be filed in the related matter or client file—so everything is available in one place.
7. Expand Your Footprint
Adopting a virtual model for geographical expansion or added service offerings allows firms to broaden their geographical coverage and access to a wider network of experts, resources, and prospects, without the high cost of acquisition. It also allows firms to test market expansion or new service offerings without making significant upfront capital investments.
8. Value For Clients
Most virtual law firms will choose to pass on savings to their clients in the form of reduced billing rates or very reasonable fixed rates, while still seeing plenty of profit margin. Given the level of experience lawyers in virtual firms tend to have—often coming from BigLaw or other specialist practices with high billing rates—this is obviously a win-win for your clients, whether they are value-oriented B2C clients or B2B clients who need to justify rates annually at management level within their business in order to keep hiring your firm. When the rates are lower, clients also tend to relax, feeling less pressure to squeeze entire histories or briefings into an hour and giving you more time and more insight to be able to do an awesome job for them.
9. Deliberate Communications and Culture
We have seen a counter-intuitive trend in law firms that have adopted remote or virtual working. Lawyers who work in a virtual firm or as a member of distributed teams across multiple locations are more likely to establish consistent processes and channels to support both routine and ad hoc team communications. This is because they can’t rely on casual catch-ups face-to-face in the office. Typically, we see virtual legal teams using regular team calls and chat channels to stay in touch. We also see their discipline about establishing processes to ensure work is progressed, tasks are completed and clients receive a consistent level of service and quality regardless of who they are dealing with. Setting routine processes and communications in this way and sticking to them has a ripple effect—it creates a culture of accountability and transparency. People feel more connected when they have established regular opportunities to discuss work and clients with their colleagues. It takes discipline and it’s fundamental to the success of virtual teams and firms.
10. Doing Things Your Way
Adopting virtual ways of working gives law firms a chance to redefine their office environment or design an entirely new way of working while staying ahead of market competition and creating highly productive, talented, and loyal teams. For individual lawyers, the biggest benefit of working remotely (even for some of the working week) is that you can maintain a work/life balance nearer to what you really want. Of course, it’s still hard work, of course, there are still long hours, but there should be more scope for control over when you work and how you work while maintaining optimum productivity and seamless service to clients.
Virtual is Becoming the Norm
Regardless of how you define your firm in terms of its virtual-ness, the benefits of virtual working at any level go far beyond convenience. It’s clear that flexible and remote working arrangements are simply becoming the norm—accessing client files from court, working on a contract on the train on the way to meet your client, catching up on your billing from home—whatever the scenario, staff, lawyers, and clients demand the kind of flexibility remote and virtual ways of working provides.
About the Author
David Hepburn is the president of Actionstep. Actionstep’s practice & business management software gives law firms the freedom and tools to evolve and grow their practice. Built in the cloud, with workflow at its heart. Actionstep gets rid of law firm administrivia and simplifies how you work. So you always have the headspace and time to create outstanding client experiences.