So, how does it actually work to run a virtual law firm day to day?
The Client Experience:
A potential client will either find us online or get referred to us, and make initial contact by phone or email or by booking an appointment online with our paralegal/client services director, Mary Lou. If it seems like the person would be a good fit for our firm, we set up a video meeting for them to talk to me. All I need for these meetings is my laptop, a good wifi connection, and a wall that looks professional enough for business meetings. (This wall part has actually been the hardest part of the entire thing.) If they decide to hire us, the rest of the work is done by phone or email.
Because I’m not tied to court appearances, I can do my work whenever and wherever. Very little in business law is a true time-sensitive emergency. And almost everything I do is some combination of thinking and writing, so all I really need is a laptop and some wifi. And sometimes some coffee. (Okay, often some coffee.)
From the client’s perspective, they’re getting the same exact service that they would get from any law firm, plus what we intend to be the additional perks of ease, accessibility, and efficiency because we’re using technology that most other law firms aren’t using yet. The clients are getting the quality but don’t have to pay for the overhead or inefficiencies (think: no rent, no parking, no public transit fees, no gas, no commute, no copy machine rental, phone system, books, file cabinets, storage, furniture, time spent on printing/copies/scanning, and on and on). And clients don’t have to sit in traffic and find parking whenever they want to talk to one of us. If someone prefers a traditional law firm with a traditional office, then they’re not the right client for us anyway, and we’re happy to refer them to someone who might be a better fit.
The Team Experience:
Because we’re not all in an office rubbing shoulders every day, we have to consciously create time to communicate to make sure everyone knows what their priorities are, what next steps are, and also just so they don’t feel completely isolated and alone. We have one all-team meeting once a week to review our client projects and make sure things keep moving. We have another all-team meeting every other week or so to work on non-client projects such as business development, marketing projects, or to do all-staff training. I also have at least one one-on-one meeting with each of them every week to batch questions/answers and check in. All group meetings include some time to talk about non-work things for a few minutes, as well -- we’ll start our staff meetings sharing one good thing that happened or one thing we learned that week -- so we can all continue to learn about each other and keep up the feeling of a true team.
I try to make sure I’m reasonably available to them if they need me, but it’s also a really good practice in making sure all of our procedures are solid, that they have all the information they need in order to do their jobs, and that they know what’s an emergency and what’s not so we can all work as efficiently as possible. Most of our non-meeting communications are done via email unless it’s a true emergency. The goal, whether I’m there in person or not, is to have the law firm depend as little on me as possible, because that would be the mark of a successful practice. That part is a process, but it might even be easier to get there with me gone than if I were there; I’d still have the inclination to try to do everything myself, and there wouldn’t be as much immediate incentive to change it.
Our team is still working really well together, and I won’t speak for them, but my personal impression is that everyone seems happy and invested. If anything, I think it contributes to a shared feeling that we’re doing something new and blazing a trail together.
The virtual law firm also gives me an opportunity to give my employees one benefit that many other companies can’t or won’t: the benefit of being able to control their own lives and schedules, just as I can. I may not be able to give them big bonuses every year (yet!), but what I can do is let them prioritize their own lives amid the work. Everyone has things that come up in life — babies, illnesses, family challenges, or even just routine things like appointments or finding out at the last minute that you’re the one that has to pick the kid up from daycare. My employees are able to work from home and get their own flexible hours to live their lives how they want. And they know that I value their lives outside of work. After that, it’s hard to want to go back to commuting an hour in each direction to sit your butt in a chair for 9 hours straight. It brings me joy to be able to give that to them.
I try to work normal hours (9-6ish) on weekdays. I sometimes work nights and weekends, but conversely, sometimes I take days off to travel or spend time with people or be a tourist. The main challenge with doing regular work hours on the road is that, to the people we were staying with, it often looked like we were working too much. From the outside, it seems like we should be on vacation, so even working 9-6 seems like we’re workaholics because people expect us to be relaxing, hanging out, and exploring. For us, we’re just living our lives, working normal hours, and we spend as much time as we can exploring outside of working hours.
Ultimately, I can do the work anywhere, so it doesn’t make a difference to clients, to my network, to my employees, or to anyone else whether I’m in Oakland or not. And when I do go back to the Bay Area, I plan to still run my law firm this way. It saves me a ton of time (I joke about my strenuous commute from the bedroom to the next room over). I’m much more productive working from home because it’s much easier to set up and protect time for deep, uninterrupted work. And I get to keep my PJ pants on when I’m on video chats. It’s definitely my dream job.
I keep a close pulse on the stats of my business, and my business has measurably grown while I’ve been on the road, by every measure.
The truly interesting and funny part is: the things that help my business run well with me remote also are things that help my business in general. They’re also things that help me and my entire team have more flexible, independent lives that keep us happier. Putting our systems and technology and teamwork to the test by me being gone may have actually accelerated our systems and technology and teamwork. It’s a really rewarding experience. For example, if I had stayed home, I probably would have continued to do at least a few in-person client meetings a week, and never would have tested and found out that doing them all online can, and does, work, which saves everyone time, money, and hassle.
So while I do have luck and privileges that gave me a leg up to make this all possible (and I never lose my gratitude for them), I do think that this lifestyle, or at least certain aspects of it, is possible for a lot of people if it’s really something you want to do. In fact, even if all you want to do is stay put, there’s a lot you can do to at least build in more flexibility and efficiency so you can get more done in less time and for cheaper. It does require a lot of discipline and some good tools, but in the end, it’s a lifestyle that, for me, is a pinnacle of fulfillment and adventure.
In Part 3, I’ll go into how we do some of our marketing and networking from the road.