Working remotely has to be the number one hot topic that comes up over and over again on our trip. I’m working full-time, and Mike is working part-time, all remote. This is something that many people haven’t seen done yet, and we honestly didn’t even know how it would really work out ourselves, so I’m constantly surprised by the depths of people’s interest in this topic. Mike’s experience is similar to mine in a lot of ways but very different in others, so for now I’m just sticking to my personal experience. I wasn’t sure what people would be most interested in, so I’m breaking it up into multiple parts to focus on a few different aspects of running a law firm remotely.
Part I: The One Where I Talk About Myself
Before we get into the nitty gritty of actually running a law firm remotely, some backstory that might help:
I’m a lawyer, and have owned my own law firm for a little over five years now. I practice business law, which means I help small business owners protect their businesses and their families by creating customized business documents that limit their liability. (Plug!) We do a lot of business formations, consulting about independent contractors vs. employee classification, trademark registration, contracts, HR and employment policies, etc. Anything that comes up in the course of a business, other than going to court.
Before I started this firm, I spent a long and difficult year doing family law. I think I would have ended up working for myself eventually, anyway, but the combination of family law + that particular job made me learn a lot more quickly that a) I would only be truly happy with the kind of independence that is hard to find unless working for yourself, b) I don’t want to be bound to the courtroom anymore, and I ideally want to be able to work from anywhere or at least have more control over my hours and ability to travel, c) I want to practice a kind of law where everyone is on the same side and shares a concrete goal, and d) the legal field is far behind and someone needs to help move it forward, even if in small ways. Which, fast forward five years, is what brought me to where I am today. Namely, conducting client meetings in an RV at a truck stop, and networking on the phone while sitting on a bench at the National Mall in DC. Or, literally at the moment I write this, sitting on an airplane.
Before we started the trip, I had what I’d call about an 80% virtual law firm. A virtual law firm is one that doesn’t have a “real” office, and most services are conducted online. In order to both keep the overhead low and also give myself the flexibility I wanted, the law firm was set up using a coworking space as our headquarters. I’d go in a few times a week for client meetings and to get the mail. The rest was done from home or out and about. My employees all worked from home, but would occasionally come in to Oakland to join me for meetings, networking events, or our in-person seminars. While it completely worked to not have a “real” office, I still felt like I was spending most of my week just driving around the Bay Area and not being as productive (or calm) as I’d like to be.
The trip would put the virtual law firm to a true test. I’d be working remotely 100% of the time, changing locations, changing time zones, and still working full time. I’d see no clients and no contacts in person for a year or more.
Near the beginning of the trip, my employees all expressed in one way or another that they were worried. They thought the firm wouldn’t grow with me away, that they wouldn’t get the support from me that they needed. I was worried they might feel resentful, like I’m traipsing around the country while they’re doing all the hard work. None of us knew whether we’d still get clients, or whether people would demand to meet in person before hiring us. But, the irrationally optimistic entrepreneur that I am, I thought we could make it work. It was at least worth giving it a go. And secretly, my goal was not only to sustain, but to grow the business even more while I’m on the road.
Months into the trip, my employees all separately admitted to me that, to their relieved surprise, it’s actually been totally fine. Nothing’s changed. Everything’s working, and everything’s growing. At one point I even said in passing, “When I get back, we’ll do xyz…” and the response was, “Oh yeah… you’re coming back! I forgot!” Nothing makes me feel more confident that this can work than my employees telling me they believe it. And, goal achieved -- we didn’t just sustain the business, we grew it substantially.
I can’t discuss working remotely without also acknowledging some of my many privileges, all of which I feel deep gratitude for on a daily basis:
First, I am very privileged to have a team that has fully embraced the sometimes maddeningly change-focused philosophy of my law firm. Seriously, they are all amazing. I know this would have been much more difficult with a team who wasn’t willing to jump in and take risks and grow and change with me.
Second, I am also incredibly privileged to have a job that I can do on the computer. For people who work with their hands, or who need to be present at their jobs for one reason or another, a trip like this would be much more difficult and maybe seem impossible. I know I gave myself a huge head start by picking a career that only needs internet.
And finally -- having a partner who’s also up for it! I try not to take this for granted. How lucky I am!
With the backstory in mind, the next installment will talk about how a virtual law firm actually works.