Opening a virtual law firm is an attractive idea, because of the low startup costs and minimal overhead. It sounds perfect for a solo practice or even a small firm. But before you take the bold step into the cyber world, there are some important considerations to weigh.
What is a Virtual Law Firm?
Contrary to what you might think there's no single business model that applies to virtual law firms. There are variations that depend on the services provided and the type of practice involved. For some practices, such as providing services to other law firms, it may mean an entirely virtual practice where no formal office or meeting rooms are required. However, if it's necessary to have face to face meetings with clients, then a semi-virtual practice may be more appropriate.
Begin with a Plan
Starting a virtual law firm is in many ways just like starting a brick and mortar firm. First, you need a plan. A comprehensive business plan is a good place to start. There are lots of sample plans available on the internet and in business books. The basics of any business plan include:
- An executive summary;
- An analysis of your intended market;
- A description of your firm;
- A financial plan;
- A description of your competitors; and
- A marketing strategy.
In addition to the basics, a virtual law firm business plan should also include descriptions of:
- Your practice area;
- Your technology and communication needs; and
- Your legal business organization structure.
Making Your Practice Virtual
Since your proposed clients will find you by searching the web for a particular kind of attorney, you will need to specialize. Begin with determining your legal niche. Your niche market will dictate the structure for your virtual firm, everything from the look of your webpage to the services you offer.
Once you have a plan and your niche market, you can start your virtual firm. At a minimum, you will need a cell phone, a laptop and an internet connection, but that's only the start. So, what are the essentials?
There are low cost services available to obtain a domain name and have someone design your webpage. You can be cost conscious, but don't skimp on your webpage. It's your office and to be taken seriously, it will need to look professional. It's also the place where you will primarily interact with your clients and potential clients. Your website should have password protected accounts for each client, so they can upload and download documents, fill out forms, meet with you via the web and, of course, pay you.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
It's imperative that you have a secure internet connection and a virtual private network (VPN) will help you do that. As an attorney, protecting attorney/client privilege and your client's data is extremely important. State bar associations have started developing ethical rules requiring attorneys to protect client information when using cloud based technology. Check with your state bar association to see what rules apply to you.
Legal Practice Management Software
There are companies that provide a complete legal practice management package, but it's also possible to get separate pieces from different vendors. The main elements for the software should include the following:
- Case management database;
- Client portal;
- Contact management;
- Calendaring and docketing;
- Time and billing tracking;
- Accounting and billing; and
- Word processing / document management.
If you don't receive all the software you need with a comprehensive package, then some additional applications may be essential depending on your type of practice. These could include:
- Cloud document storage and an electronic document sharing system;
- Electronic fax software to receive and send faxes on your laptop; and
- Software to read, convert and create PDF files.
Office and Equipment
Some states require lawyers to have a physical office where legal services are provided. So, check with your state bar association to see what's required. However, even if you're not required to have a physical office, you may still need one for client meetings and conferences. There are temporary and shared office setups that can meet these needs, but your state bar may also have ethical rules regarding shared or temporary offices.
While you might not need a full office and all of the office supplies, there will still be items that you will need. Beyond a desk and a chair, your computer and cell phone will be your office. Using a laptop means you can take your office wherever you go. You will also need printing and scanning capabilities. Some suggested items include:
- An all in one printer - these combine a fax machine, a printer, a copier, and a scanner;
- A computer tablet for times when you need documents or information, but you can't take your computer; and
- A portable scanner for when getting back to the office isn't going to happen.
Hired Help for Your Virtual Law Firm
You most likely will not have employees as you get started and maybe you never will. After all, services are available over the internet that can provide you with virtual receptionists, paralegals and legal secretaries. However, you'll need to make sure to supervise any work done by non-attorneys to ensure the proper exercise of your professional obligations.
Ethics and Legal Rules
Ethical rules apply to virtual law firms just as they would for brick and mortar firms, but more care may be needed to maintain client confidentiality and supervision of virtual legal service providers. Attorneys considering opening a virtual practice should consult their state bar association for any special state rules or restrictions.
You've Launched Your Virtual Law Firm, Now Let Us Help You Get the Word Out
Your virtual firm is now up and running, but just having a presence on the web won't help you if potential clients don't know about you. FindLaw's Legal Marketing Solutions can help you reach clients with an effective marketing approach, allowing you to focus on your practice.