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Virtual law firms: did 2020 make you look again at the way you work?

Woman working at home for a virtual law firmA lot of lip service is paid to setting up virtual law firms. The real question is how to go about this practically. However, what is the reality of working in a virtual firm and do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks?

When COVID-19 forced many law firms to send their people home to work, remote work’s time had really arrived.

The rush to give employees access to all the tools they’d need to work from home all came very suddenly. Yet, once everyone settled down, what quickly became apparent to many office-based firms is that employees could be productive and focussed when not in the office. In many cases, even more so. Employers everywhere began to understand that remote work really works.

Once the pandemic is over, will firms go back to “business as usual” and require that everyone work onsite? I have my doubts. It’s just possible the pandemic is the watershed moment that finally convinces employers that working from home is the new way forward.

Virtual law firm benefits.

It comes as no surprise that remote work brings a plethora of advantages for law firms. However, some are less obvious than others. Let’s take a look at the key ones.

Freedom to work from anywhere.

The only real caveat to this one is you have to have a phone and internet connection. That said, connectivity is becoming less and less of an issue as times goes by and the pandemic will have played its part in improving the availability of fast broadband.

A key benefit of a virtual law firm is that it allows you to tap into a talent pool that was formerly unavailable when location was paramount. Moving home to commute easily to the office used to be a limiting factor. That has all changed. Whether you are in Dundee or Dunedin, you can now work just as effectively.

In addition, remote working is one way to avoid high-rent and high-mortgage areas. That’s especially true for many firms where high cost city living was a pre-requisite for your career.

Work / life balance – manage your time more effectively.

Dali painting of time slipping byHand in hand with remote working comes flexible working.

Solicitors can start and end their day when they choose – as long as this does not interfere with the work being done on time. This is invaluable when dealing with the needs of your personal life. Whether it’s the school run, doctor’s appointments or having to be at home when the central heating boiler needs fixing, the flexibility of homeworking addresses these needs.

Less commuting stress.

According to Lloyds Banking Group, the average UK commuter spends 492 days of his or her working life getting to and from work. That works out roughly at just over an hour each work day.

That’s just one side of the coin. An hour of commuting each day is linked to higher levels of stress and anxiety. Research also shows lengthy commutes to be associated with health issues such as raised blood sugar, higher cholesterol and increased risk of depression. Clearly, cutting out the commute helps both your mental and physical health. In my case, it also means I have the time to eat more healthily, have a little extra sleep and get a healthy breakfast.

Money savings – from fuel and commuting costs.

According to Lloyds, people living in the East of England, in areas such as Cambridge, Norwich and Peterborough, fork out an average of £78.93 each month on commuting costs. Londoners spend an average of £76.49 on their commute every month. Those in the South East are also spending above the UK average of £66.31 per month, splashing out £75.77.

The equation is straightforward. You can save between £800 and £2,000 a year by not having to commute. Petrol, car maintenance and insurance, season tickets and lunches soon add up. A virtual law firm puts money back in your pocket.

Reduced business overheads – no more expensive office rents.

Personal savings are one thing, but business savings also come into it. You can save on overheads, office costs, transport subsidies, business rates and a host of other things. Whilst you may still need to maintain some form of office environment, costs should dramatically reduce.

Increased productivity and performance.

Given the right home office working environment, you can enjoy fewer interruptions, less office politics, a quieter noise level, and fewer meetings or more efficient ones. When you add in the absence of a commute, remote workers typically have more time and fewer distractions. That leads to increased productivity. That’s a major benefit for employees and employers alike.

Executed well, remote working allows solicitors and law firms to focus on what really matters – performance.  Getting in early and leaving late may look like more work, but actual performance is a much better indicator of productivity.

Positive environmental impact.

In the United States, it is estimated that the 3.9 million people who work from home at least half time reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking more than 600,000 cars off the road for an entire year. That’s a huge 7.8 billion vehicle miles. 3 million tons of greenhouse gases are avoided, and oil savings reach 980 million dollars.

The empty raincoat?

Surreal image of empty raincoatIn one of his books, the famous business analyst, Charles Handy, described the ideal for any business as being the maximisation of economic performance. He thought this was being done at the expense of the needs of the individual – something he called the empty raincoat. His inference being the needs of the business turned employees into psychologically empty vessels.

Now, with flexible working, we at last have the opportunity to balance both needs in a win-win situation.

Conclusions.

So, there must be some downsides? I’m struggling to find them. Some have told me that they miss the camaraderie of the office. My advice is look at the benefits listed above and get over it. You’ll have the time to make new friends.

For me, in an ideal world, I’d take it one stage further. I’d like to work for LawWare from a home office in my favourite place – Granada in the south of Spain. I’d be up early for my tostada, cafe and cognac. Out at lunchtime for tapas and relaxing in the sunshine in the evening after a full day’s work.

I’ve yet to have a conversation about that with my CEO, Warren Wander. But, in all honesty, I could be doing that right now and he wouldn’t be any the wiser. Only kidding, Warren!

The bottom line is working remotely can give employees the time and environment needed to make healthy choices. If you would like to find out more about the benefits and practicalities of setting up a virtual law firm, please contact us.

Mike O’Donnell, October 2020.

Further reading

Further reading: how do you get started with a virtual law firm?

Virtual 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 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:

Find out more about each of these components. 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.

Meeting 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 going virtual as an option, please contact us for support and guidance.

Welcome to the new normal!

 

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