IN THE BEGINNING
Not too long ago I worked in firms that had not yet embraced the technology that would make it possible for attorneys to work wherever they wanted, at whatever time they wanted. Clients had to come to us, and obtaining legal services was often very inconvenient for clients and attorneys. While many of the tools that make virtual practice possible today weren’t available at that time, lawyers who were embracing the internet could certainly see the changes and opportunities that were coming.
In the traditional law firms where I was cutting my teeth, “facetime” was an unspoken requirement that you be physically present in the office during traditional work hours, as opposed to technology that now allows us to take a face to face meetings with anyone, anywhere, any time. A “cloud” was a puffy thing in the sky that might dump rain on our commutes, not a digital place to store and share documents with teammates and clients. “Slack” was a verb meaning to be relaxed or lazy, as opposed to the name of an online workspace where I now collaborate with colleagues from wherever I spend my work time.
EMBRACING VIRTUAL LEGAL SERVICES
It wasn’t until I entered solo practice that I realized how much freedom I had given myself to work how I wanted, where I wanted, and with whatever clients I wanted. All of a sudden I was no longer constrained by location or time. I didn’t even need to worry about office space or physical storage for files. The freedom this gave me was liberating. Early on a woman contacted me about helping her with a pre-marital agreement. Thanks to secure email, cloud-based document storage, and online video conferencing, I was able to accept clients who were based anywhere. Thanks to offering virtual services I have been able to serve clients all over California, and in places farther afield – Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, and even Japan and Australia.
BENEFITS OF VIRTUAL PRACTICE
Although I no longer have a solo practice, I still routinely serve my clients, even most of the local ones, virtually and work with my colleagues virtually. The benefits to my clients are things such as convenience: they don’t need to come to my office to meet with me, for instance, and they can access their entire case file through my cloud-based document storage platforms. This is an important consideration not just for clients who don’t live or work in the same town as your office – it is a great help to clients who may be disabled, or not able to drive, or who have non-traditional work schedules. The benefits to me are even greater: I can work where I want – from home, a coffee shop, a park bench. I can work when I want which has allowed me to build a work/life balance that respects my personal and professional values, relationships and interests.
THE TOOLS I USE
To make virtual services possible, I’ve curated several tools that allow me to work efficiently and seamlessly with my clients. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. A Laptop: Ditch the desktop and get something portable with good internet capabilities. Most practice software is web-based these days, so check the requirements of the programs your practice needs, and then go pick something portable. I’m partial to my MacBook.
2. Cloud-based Document Storage: Dropbox offers excellent security and lots of flexibility. I can share documents easily with my clients either directly from Dropbox or as attachments to emails.
3. Smartphone: My trusty iPhone is never far from my side. All the web-based services I use have apps that I keep on my phone so that I can jump into my office at any time, should I need to. I keep a scanning app there, too, which is very handy.
4. Cloud-based Practice Management Software: I currently use two cloud-based services for timekeeping, invoicing, client management, and case management: Clio and MyCase.
5. A Voice Over IP (VOIP) Phone Line: “But, didn’t she just say she’s got a smart phone?” I sure did, but I also hate handing my personal cell phone number out. I use Vonage, and forward that line to my cell through the Vonage app. This way I am not tied to a landline, but I can also turn the office number off (don’t worry, all voice mails are routed to email) and protect my personal time. Google Voice is another good option for a VOIP phone line.
6. Online Videoconferencing: I use FaceTime and Skype to have face to face meetings with people who prefer that to coming into the office for a meeting.
7. A Way To Sign Documents Digitally: DocuSign is a popular option. I also use the Preview program on my Mac.
8. A Place To ‘Meet’ In the Cloud: For the team I currently work with, Slack is a godsend. It’s a place to hold discussions, share documents, and check in during the workday. We can even establish private “channels” with individual clients if email and phone are not cutting it for communication. There are several similar services, such as Basecamp, Asana, and Trello.
9. Boundaries: Working virtually is great for being available to clients, but don’t forget to keep some boundaries in place. This is something most attorneys could work on, whether they offer virtual services or not. For me this means I keep my work to certain hours of the day, turn off call forwarding during my “off” times, and I never, ever hand out my cell number to clients or colleagues.
10. Flexibility: Even with good boundaries, it is important to have some amount of flexibility, after all that’s one of the best benefits to offering virtual services.