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Virtual law firms – how do you get started?

virtual law firmsVirtual law firms have been around for a while now. Following Covid 19 and lockdown, they seem to be surging in popularity. That’s hardly surprising. Many solicitors have had to adopt homeworking for obvious health and safety reasons.

Others found their existing practice decided to move to a virtual model to save overhead. Yet others unfortunately faced unemployment and decided to set up on their own.

Opening a virtual law firm is an appealing idea. Start-up costs are low and there is minimal overhead. It sounds ideal for a sole trader or even a small firm. Yet, before you take the leap into the cyberspace, there are some important points to consider.

So, how do you go about setting one up and what should you bear in mind? Let’s take a look at the basics.

What do virtual law firms look like?

Perhaps unexpectedly, there is no single template or business model that applies to virtual law firms. The variety depends very much on the type of legal services you provide and the type of practice you wish to become. Entirely virtual practices such as those which provide services for other law firms probably won’t even need meeting rooms. However, if you have to meet clients face-to-face periodically, you may need to hire meeting rooms from time to time.

Whatever the case, there is a single starting point.

Keep your head out of the clouds.

That single point is a business plan. Balance the heady euphoria of starting a new venture with a down-to-earth, well-constructed business plan.

There are many good guides available from reputable sources to help you. The Law Society of Scotland’s guide is a good as any and will help ensure you don’t overlook things like accounts rules, Making Tax Digital and professional indemnity cover.

The key components of a good business plan include:

  • An analysis of your intended market.
  • A description of your firm.
  • A financial / funding plan.
  • Which practice areas you intend to provide.
  • Your legal business format.
  • A long hard look at your competition and,
  • Most importantly, a marketing strategy.

With this done, you should turn your attention to the more practical and tactical matters involved in setting up a virtual firm.

How to go virtual.

The minimum requirements are a mobile phone, a PC or laptop and a broadband connection. That’s just the start. What else do you need?

Website.

You’re a virtual firm – you don’t have High Street premises. So, your website is your shop window. The golden rule for a good website is get an expert to build it for you. DIY or well-meaning amateurs don’t cut the mustard. Skimping in this area will not help you generate new business.

There are several key things to insist upon for your website. A prominent call to action containing your contact details is the most important. Following that should be a clear indication of the services you provide and where and, of course it must look just as good on a mobile phone as it does on a laptop. Our article on getting your homepage right provides additional hints and tips on how to go about this.

It doesn’t stop there. Your site needs optimising so that it appears on the first page of Google and other search engines. This too is a specialist job and you can find out more about what in entails in our article on Search Engine Optimisation.

Legal case management software.

This is also an absolute must. That’s because you’ll need a mechanism for storing clients’ legal documents, correspondence, recording your time and maintaining your accounts. There are many suppliers in the marketplace, so shop around and look for the best cloud-based practice management software for your needs. As a minimum requirement, your supplier should be able to deliver:

To find out more about each of these components, follow this link. Also, look out for systems that claim to be integrated – not all are. You don’t need the hassle of using one system for case management, another for accounts and paying additional costs for Microsoft licences.

Don’t forget the hardware.

As I mentioned earlier you may need occasional office space or meeting rooms. There are temporary and shared office setups that can meet these needs at reasonable cost.

Whilst you might not need full office facilities as your desk, chair, PC and mobile phone are effectively it, consider what else you may need. Using a laptop means you can take your office wherever you go but don’t forget things like scanners, printers and possibly a tablet.

Teams up.

virtual law firmsMeeting clients is one thing. Keeping in touch with colleagues, hired help and other interested parties is another. Without having to shoulder the expense of hiring meeting rooms every five minutes, Microsoft Teams offers an inexpensive and readily available alternative.

Teams is a cloud-based team collaboration software that is part of the Office 365 suite of applications. The core capabilities in Microsoft Teams include business messaging, calling, video meetings and file sharing. Businesses of all sizes can use Teams.

Get help?

When you start out, you’ll probably be on your own with no employees, partners or junior legal associates. As your practice grows, that may well change but it is not the only way forward.

Services are available online that can provide paralegal support, virtual receptionists and legal secretarial and accounting assistance.

If you are used to working in a traditional office-based law firm, all of this may sound like Brave New World. However, it looks like it’s here to stay. So, if you intend to make the most of this new approach to the work / life balance, you need to make sure you get off to the right start. If you are thinking about virtual law firms as an option, please contact us for support and guidance.

Welcome to the new normal!

Mike O’Donnell, September 2020.

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