How the Virtual Law Office Can Simplify Law Firm Management
By Charles A. Volkert III, Esq.
Technology and innovative legal research tools are rapidly changing law firm management approaches and the way work gets done. Many legal managers are realizing that four walls and a roof are no longer necessary for some services. In fact, with the high cost of real estate in many markets, physical office space can be a drag on the bottom line.
By cutting overhead costs, virtual law offices are able to deliver lower-cost services to clients. And attorneys and legal support staff who are employed by these firms benefit by having flexible schedules and work-from-anywhere mobility, which allow them to better balance work and family.
More than ever, the future law office will rely on technology to remain competitive. Even firms guided by traditional law firm management increasingly need to operate in the virtual space. Here are a few common legal services that virtual law offices can deliver exceptionally well at a more affordable rate:
- Client interaction. It’s possible to handle many client interactions — document sharing, eDiscovery, case updates, billing/payments — through a secure online portal or by phone. There are exceptions, of course, such as initial meetings in complex litigation cases. Law firm management is increasingly relying on platforms like Firm Central, PracticePanther and MyCase for client communications. Some web-based applications even allow real-time chats and consultations.
- Legal research. With the advent of e-books and online research tools like Westlaw and Lexis, lawyers don’t need to set foot into a law library as often anymore, if ever. Attorneys and legal support staff can conduct research from wherever they have a computer and internet connection. Cloud-based knowledge management systems can also organize legal research results.
- Document creation and storage. Ready access to a firm’s servers means it’s easier than ever to draft and file documents remotely. Legal managers can put templates on secure cloud-based collaboration platforms, thereby greatly simplifying the preparation of routine documents such as contracts, wills, intellectual property work, estate planning matters and so forth. Keeping all documents in electronic form also decreases the costs of printing and storage.
- Filing and serving documents. More and more courts have instituted e-filing for case documents, such as motions and petitions. For example, the U.S. federal court has a Case Management and Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system, which reduces the time it takes for legal professionals to file documents and for courts to manage data. The scope of e-filing varies by state. Some allow it for papers that can be served by mail, delivery or fax, while others require the recipient’s prior consent.
Law firm management advice for going virtual
With so many brick-and-mortar firms already adopting e-documents and cloud-based systems, managing a virtual law firm isn’t all that different from overseeing a physical one.
Law practice management software can help a firm handle basic duties — scheduling, tracking billable hours, managing cases and so on. The key to running a virtual law office is having a reliable and fully encrypted cloud-based platform. Clients want lower-cost legal services, but not at the expense of compromised security. Legal managers should demonstrate to current and potential clients that the firm is serious about minimizing data security risks.
With cloud computing, law firms can reduce one headache: dealing with IT issues. The vendor is responsible for maintaining servers, upgrading software and databases, and providing 24/7 tech support. Once the platform is up and running, attorneys and legal managers will have more time to focus on the things that matter: practicing law, measuring client satisfaction and bringing in new business.
Some firms may resist virtualization because they’re afraid inter-office collaboration will suffer. But with powerful platforms for video and phone conferencing, not to mention channel-specific messaging tools, there’s no reason for lawyers and legal support staff to feel isolated. There may be a time-zone issue if you have employees in various parts of the world, but even then it’s possible to find a mutually agreeable time to meet as a team.
The virtual office may not work for every legal professional or type of law practice. But for many firms, operating virtually — partially or wholly — leads to greater margins, increased client satisfaction and more productive law firm management.