Building a Successful Law Firm—Without an Office
Rent is one of the largest expenses for law firms, sometimes taking up as much as 10 percent of their gross revenue. Too, it’s not uncommon for workers in large cities to have hour-plus commutes to their offices. The majority of today’s clients are more interested in efficiency and reasonable prices than how glamorous their lawyer’s office is. As a result, firms are choosing another way to work: virtual offices.
Marcia Watson Wasserman, Founder and President of Comprehensive Management Solutions, Inc., serves as a consulting COO for boutique and mid-sized law firms, helping numerous lawyers develop and sustain virtual offices. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast to share her expertise and advice for lawyers considering moving toward virtual work.
Know who you’re working with
With a virtual office, you can’t pop into a colleague’s office or bump into them in the hallway. You won’t see what they’re doing on a daily basis, so you need to trust that they share the same goals, work ethic and commitment to firm culture as you. Marcia finds that people who have worked together at a brick-and-mortar firm before going virtual tend to work best, because an in-person relationship and sense of trust is already established. If you’re going virtual, find colleagues you already know personally, or at the very least, spend plenty of in-person time with them before committing to anything.
Understand your tech tools
It’s impossible to have a virtual firm without the help of cloud-based technology tools. To have a successful virtual firm, everyone must be an expert on those tools. Law firms are notorious for buying software, then failing to learn how to use it—that won’t fly with a virtual firm. You need remote systems and procedures that streamline your practice and benefit your clients, and everyone must be comfortable using them. At a minimum, you’ll have to invest both money and training time in document management software, video conferencing software, client portals for paying bills, collaboration tools and, of course, encryption and data security tools.
How to delegate work, how to offer feedback, how to manage work among teams, when and how to have meetings—these questions are equally important at virtual or brick-and-mortar firms. But at virtual firms, it becomes even more critical that you discuss them openly and have communications systems in place. When communication is only happening by email, it can easily break down. Video conferencing, phone calls and planned communication are the antidote to this problem. Virtual connection also needs to be backed up with in-person events like retreats and social gatherings, at least annually. Maintaining communication at a virtual firm isn’t just important for client work, it’s also crucial to maintain firm culture.
Working from home sounds great, but it’s not for everyone. Some people get lonely working remotely. Others get distracted or they lack the motivation to work if they’re not in an office. Just like lawyers, support staff must have the right personality and skillset to work virtually. Another element to consider with support staff is wage and hour law in your location. Most support staff are non-exempt, and you have to consider supervision, insurance and the myriad of issues that arise when you have staff working remotely. Management issues don’t go away when support staff is out of sight.
Take advantage of time to network
Virtual work doesn’t mean staying home staring at your computer all day. The majority of work might be done from your home office, but networking can still happen in person. Join organizations, go to meetings and attend events to stay connected to your profession and your colleagues. Virtual work also offers more flexibility to meet with clients and attend events important to their industry. You’ll get to know your clients at a deeper level, which they’ll appreciate, and it will get you out of your work-from-home routine—a win for everyone.
If you can’t go fully virtual, start small
Not every firm is suited to virtual work, but many firms can use some of its elements to their advantage. Especially in large cities, more firms are using co-working spaces or opening small satellite offices that are more convenient for lawyers to get to. With more attorneys working outside of the main office a few days a week, the next logical step for some firms is to encourage office sharing. It’s a huge cultural shift for partners to share an office, but it can offer tremendous space and cost savings, and this concept typically doesn’t faze young associates.