Going Virtual

Traditionally, law is a profession rooted in brick-and-mortar offices, face-to-face interactions, reams of paper, and bloated overhead costs. However, a significant transformation in how modern law offices practice is underway: practitioners are going virtual. This shift towards virtual practices is redefining the landscape of legal work. For many, including myself, the journey towards a virtual office has been motivated by personal circumstances including the need for a better work-life balance and logistical adjustments due to life changes. The traditional office setting, characterized by a daily commute, strict office hours, and a physical presence, is being replaced by a more flexible, digitally oriented approach.

My decision to go virtual came following the birth of my first son and a severe injury that left me facing surgery and several months of immobility. When those things happened almost simultaneously in the spring of 2019, I was running a traditional practice that required me to commute from Oakland to Walnut Creek daily, out of the house from 8 am – 6:30 pm. I couldn’t justify leaving work before 6 pm due to traffic because I couldn’t work after I put the baby down. Everything I needed was at the office! I felt mom guilt and lawyer guilt, and something had to give. When my lease came up in December 2019, I had the opportunity to reevaluate my organizational structure. I moved to a virtual office space in January 2020 that answered my phones, received and scanned my mail, accepted service, offered monthly credits for office rental and conference room rentals, and provided all the other niceties and necessities of an office environment (minus the privacy).

Regardless of the amenities, I had so many fears: Would clients accept meeting me in a shared conference space? Would clients accept most meetings occurring by phone (remember, I was three months away from learning about Zoom!)? How would I handle file management? How would I lug things back and forth? From January to March 2020, I split my time: two days at home, and three days in a shared office environment. Then, when the world changed in March 2020, everyone had to adapt quickly, and I felt ahead of the curve. I framed it as an opportunity to make an even more drastic change. From that point on, 99 percent of my client interactions have occurred virtually, and it’s going better than ever.

For someone deciding whether to make the switch to a virtual practice, I suggest considering several important issues. The most important of these include managing client expectations and experience, the ethical use of technology, creating a virtual workspace, cost-saving strategies, time management, work-life balance, and overcoming the challenges of virtual work.

Managing Client Expectations and Experience

Managing client expectations is a critical aspect of transitioning to a virtual practice. Luckily, at this point, most clients expect that meetings will occur virtually, and many prefer it for its convenience and efficiency. Considering many of their court appearances may occur via Zoom, there is ample room to explain the benefits to a client who may be feeling uneasy. If virtual court proceedings are workable for the court, they are workable for client meetings. If a client pushes back and wants to meet in person but you can’t (COVID concerns, space, or other reasons) don’t be afraid to push back a little and ask why they are hesitant to meet virtually. Often clients just need some reassurance. If someone is still pushing back, don’t be afraid to gently suggest that your office may not be the right fit for their needs. It’s OK to set a course and stick to it, accepting that not everyone will be on board.

Ethical Use of Technology

Central to the success of a virtual legal practice is the adept and ethical use of technology. A virtual practice goes hand-in-hand with a paperless practice, and that can only be accomplished by using technology. The standard we are held to when utilizing technology in our practice as it relates to confidentiality and competence is “reasonableness under the circumstances.” An attorney is not required to become a technology expert to comply with his or her duty of confidentiality and competence; however, an attorney does owe clients a duty to have a basic understanding of the protections afforded by the technology used in their practice. If an attorney lacks the necessary competence to assess the security of a specific technology, he, she, or they must seek additional information or consult with someone who possesses the necessary knowledge, such as an information technology consultant. This is like our duty of competency – either know it or learn it. This includes being well-versed in the use of advanced computer programs, efficient document scanners, video conferencing tools, e-signature platforms, and comprehensive document management systems. Moreover, cloud-based services have become indispensable for secure data storage and easy accessibility of information. If you are using cloud-based services, consider including notice to clients in your retainer agreement.

Creating Your Workspace

Creating an effective workspace is a vital aspect of the transition. A dedicated home office, equipped with a robust technological setup, including multiple monitors and high-quality scanners, is essential. Be honest with yourself when deciding how much space you will need and don’t make it multi-use if possible. A dedicated workspace enhances productivity and projects professionalism to clients, which is a critical factor in building trust and credibility in a virtual setting. Remember that your workspace doesn’t need room for physical files because those files will be stored on your computer! Invest the time to create digital files that are organized like a paper file and make them accessible on your computer, tablet, phone, and the cloud.

Cost Savings & Money-Making Opportunities

One of the most appealing aspects of a virtual practice is significant cost savings. Leaving a traditional office space dramatically reduces overhead expenses and adds the possibility of home office tax deductions (another reason a dedicated home office space is essential, see IRS Publication 587). A virtual office space is 10-20 percent of the cost of traditional office space. Further, you’re not eating lunch out daily, and you will have reduced gas and parking fees. Reduced overhead translates into increased profitability.

In addition to reducing your costs, a virtual office setup allows you to eliminate geographic barriers and penetrate new markets. Suddenly you can take a case in a county you would have never driven to or prepare documents for a client who lives in Southern California.
Finally, a virtual setup allows you to attract a larger pool of staff and attorneys who work for you. Remote positions are increasingly popular, and a flexible work environment is a huge benefit to potential employees looking for the best fit for their own lives.

Time Management and Work-Life Balance

The benefits of a virtual practice extend beyond financial gains. Effective time management and a healthy work-life balance are critical benefits. One of the biggest and most immediate benefits is time recapture. Commuting is nearly eliminated with a virtual set-up. For many, that’s an hour saved. You can also recapture your small downtime that would otherwise be wasted in the office. I use my 5–10-minute stretch breaks to check in with the kids or walk the dog. It’s nice to have some time to connect with personal obligations during the workday. You also can redefine your work week. You can work off hours or even swap a weekend for a weekday when everything you need is available at home. Time management is crucial because working from home requires internal accountability. If you’re solo (or the boss), it’s up to you to stay on track. If you work for a firm, check in frequently to understand the expectations of when you’ll be “at your desk.”

Challenges of Virtual Work

Despite all the advantages, transitioning to a virtual environment has challenges. The risk of isolation is a significant concern. To mitigate this, actively engage in professional networks, bar association events, and legal communities – online and in-person. Make sure to prioritize your mental health and personal well-being. Regular mental health check-ins, setting realistic personal goals, and establishing clear boundaries between professional and personal life are crucial. Adapting your work patterns to your preferences and needs can significantly enhance overall well-being and job satisfaction.

The transition to a virtual legal practice is a multifaceted journey with significant benefits. In my personal experience, I’ve seen a more flexible, cost-effective, and efficient way of practicing law. I encourage anyone feeling surmounting pressure of their in-office position to consider it. It’s a great time to position yourself to thrive in the digital era of the legal profession.