by Karen McCandless
Published on 13 October 2015
Running a solo practice or even a small legal firm in today's climate is tough, with the myriad of costs surrounding running practices meaning that your business can end up being swallowed up by the big fish. But it's not all doom and gloom, as smart legal businesses are alleviating some of the prohibitive costs by turning to a virtual office.
"Setting up a virtual law firm will allow solos and smaller legal practices to overcome many of the obstacles that prevent them from competing with larger firms and commoditized legal service providers," explains a spokesperson for legal practice management software provider Clio.
Running a virtual legal practice is a whole different ballgame from just working from home or using your phone to answer your emails. Instead, it means connecting with your clients securely online through an e-portal, whether that be for communication, consulting, document sharing and signing, billing, or any other specialist service you offer.
If you're just setting up your practice or even if you're making major changes to your existing firm, going virtual may sound like hard work, but the good news is that it brings a whole host of benefits.
"Lawyers have found that virtualizing their practices can lead to several perceptible benefits, including improved productivity and efficiency, increased flexibility, and cost-efficacy," says spokesperson. "Moreover, the virtual law firm model gives lawyers the ability to control all aspects of their practice, without sacrificing their ability to focus on client matters."
Cloud-based technology is the enabler behind all this, with three key areas helping to power a virtual law firm's operations: client communications, document management, and practice management.
Law firms can use both more conventional communication methods such as VoIP (which can emulate a centralized phone system), as well as e-fax services (sending documents to another fax machine via email), and newer collaboration methods such as online communication portals to enable their virtual legal practice.
"Using internet-based services, virtual law firms can seamlessly replace conventional in-office communication tools like telephones and faxes without impacting their clients' experience," says Clio spokesperson. "While virtual law firms often lack the physical space to host client meetings, they are uniquely equipped to collaborate with clients online by deploying tools such as communication portals or extranets."
While you may think of the likes of Dropbox, Box, Microsoft OneDrive, and Google Drive as somewhere to store and share your photos and documents, they also offer a raft of features for businesses as well. These include secure sharing and editing across devices, more storage space, and automatic updating of files. So throw out your filing cabinet (or at least get a smaller one), and store your documents online.
"Having a central place to store files and documents is crucial to operating a law firm," says Clio spokesperson. "Traditional law firms typically store files in a centralized file cabinet or server. Virtual law firms need to centralize them in a cloud-based solution that be accessed anytime, anywhere on any device."
One of the major building blocks any law firm needs to ensure that it is truly virtual is a cloud-based practice management solution. One such solution is Clio, which offers a plethora of features securely via the cloud such as document management, time tracking, task scheduling, legal accounting, and billing, and integrates with other popular cloud based apps such as Xero for accounting, Gmail for your email, and Fastcase for legal research.
While theoretically there may be a lot of benefits to running a virtual law practice, it's still a daunting prospect. Luckily, there are legal firms out there that have already tread this path with success. Berger Legal is one such company, having developed a full virtual law practice with only senior level attorneys. The company was founded in 2002 and has now grown to include 13 attorneys.
As Berger Legal have shown, it is possible to create a top-flight business without a fancy office with a view of the Empire State building. Advances in cloud-based technology specifically in the areas of online communication, document storage, and practice management mean that this is easier today than ever before, while the benefits - especially for solo and small firms - are tangible.
"With solutions such as Clio, a solo lawyer or legal firm today can manage a large majority of the tasks required to run a physical practice from any location," says Clio spokesperson. "The benefits of improved efficiency, the ability to operate in an agile manner, and a decrease in costs and overheads are making setting up a virtual law practice an increasingly attractive practice to many firms."
This post was written in collaboration with cloud-based practice management software Clio.