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Virtual Practice Realities

By Kari Santos | Feb. 2, 2015


Law Office Management

Feb. 2, 2015

Virtual Practice Realities

Lawyers who have tried virtual practice discuss how it worked out and the tools they used.

The future of practice management, according to many blogs and experts, lies in the virtual realm. By eliminating a physical office and most in-person contact with clients, lawyers can, in theory at least, cut costs, offer unbundled services, and lower their fees. Practicing virtually also can make possible a flexible lifestyle - and it can be a selling point in itself.

But the American Bar Association's annual technology survey reveals that the share of attorneys who describe their practice as virtual has leveled out at 7 percent. Some lawyers have found it presents significant challenges. Here are the stories of five who've tried various approaches.

Benjamin Heston, Riverside
Heston had been practicing at his family's bankruptcy firm, Heston & Heston in Irvine. But after the birth of his son last May, he decided to set up his own practice at home in Riverside. "One, I had spent nearly all of my money on a wedding and a honeymoon," Heston says. "Two, I also wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible with my baby, so the nine-to-five thing was out."

The Tech: Heston turned to Google Scholar for legal research, he "triple backed up" his data on off-site servers, and he set up a Google Voice number so he could receive clients' calls on whatever phone he chose.

The Upshot: Heston eventually decided to rent his own office space near home, though he opts to work virtually whenever possible. "While some clients appreciate the idea of meeting up at a Starbucks or even like phone consultations, there are a lot of old-school people who expect to sit down in an office, see some diplomas on the wall, and have more of the traditional type of meeting," he says. His concentration wasn't helped by the baby in the background, either. But he still uses Chrome Remote Desktop to work from home on his tablet when necessary - and he offers to meet potential clients at a café if they prefer that to an office environment.

Roxanne T. Jen, San Mateo
Jen worked out of a closet at home starting in 2010 to keep her costs down while building her estate-planning practice. She used Regus for meeting and office space, support services, and a mailing address. Her overhead was $600 to $800 per month, including insurance and other expenses, she says.

The Tech: Jen relies on low-cost Internet phone services, which helps cut her mobile bill and make her practice more portable. She can take calls on either her computer or cell phone wherever she is, and she appreciates not having to give out her cell number in order to remain accessible. To receive and store documents (except those requiring a notarized signature) she uses Box.com.

The Upshot: Jen discovered that it was hard to supervise support staff remotely, and that she preferred keeping checklists on paper and seeing physical files instead of electronically stored data. She also found that clients "might not broach the same questions over a Skype call or email." And more people became clients when they went to her office (about 95 percent, versus 65 percent when the first meeting was at their homes or offices). She now works out of an office in San Mateo most of the time, and remotely only occasionally.

Corey Carter, Glendale
Carter, a business transactions attorney, decided to start out with a virtual practice, though he always assumed he would get a brick-and-mortar space eventually. "My original goal was not to go into the red, so keeping costs as low as possible was a huge priority," he says. "I was also drawn to the flexibility. What if I signed a three-year office lease in Santa Monica, only to find out most of my clientele was in downtown L.A.?"

The Tech: Carter stores his data in the cloud with Dropbox so it's accessible from both his laptop and mobile devices. In addition to renting as-needed office space, he started out using the Web-based practice management software Clio. An add-on program made Microsoft Word more attorney-centric; its library of contract clauses also saved him time and helped him stay organized without hiring an assistant. Carter also took advantage of the free one-year subscription that Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB, a University of California online resource program co-sponsored by the State Bar) offers lawyers in their first five years of practice, and he used public libraries for additional research.

The Upshot: Carter now has an office in Glendale and occasionally works from home. But he's glad he tried out virtual practice. "It gave me time to learn the ropes of the business, without worrying that I would run out of money." And he still uses most of the same technology.

Susanna Tuan,Alameda
Tuan began practicing family law in January 2014, providing mediation services through an online legal services start-up and offering traditional family law, immigration, and estate planning services on her own.

The Tech: Tuan uses the Wevorce portal with her mediation clients, and she uses GoToWebinar for videoconferences. She usually works from home, occasionally renting conference space. But she also trades legal work for use of a friend's brick-and-mortar office. These arrangements allowed her to go overseas for a month. "I ... practiced while I was gone. I took my cell phone and computer."

The Upshot: Tuan prefers the flexibility of practicing this way. "It would give some people a heart attack. There is a lot going on: Several [work] spaces, several sources of business, and lots of juggling. ... I threw all the labels aside and thought, 'How do I want to spend my moments in the day?' I want to talk to people, take a long lunch, work late at night." And she acknowledges that if she had to pay rent she would struggle: She expects her practice to grow, but she estimates she grossed just $20,000 her first year.

Joe Morris, Oakland
The all-virtual business transaction firm Mod4 LLP formed in 2010 and closed at the end of 2014. Its two attorney members worked from home, communicating with clients mostly by email and phone. Partner Joe Morris, who has since started a solo practice, sees a marketing advantage in virtual practice: He tells clients it means their fees don't have to cover his real estate. Eight years out of school, he charges $275 per hour, which he estimates is 10 percent to 20 percent less than his competitors.

The Tech: Mod4 initially contracted with a co-working company for a mailing address and conference space. Later, the firm booked conference rooms as needed through Liquid Space, which Morris will continue. "For the kind of work we do, we don't need support staff or a location for employees to come to," says Morris. He keeps other costs low by using open-source practice-management software and doing most of the system administration himself. He uses a CEB subscription for most online research, though he also heads to a physical public law library as needed.

The Upshot: "I am happy not to have to commute, [and] my clients are happy not to pay higher rates," says Morris. None of his clients has expressed concern about the lack of brick-and-mortar space. "In the last 15 years everyone has adopted cell phones, email, and teleconferencing as a normal part of business. This is an extension of that. It's become normalized and doesn't carry a stigma anymore."

Celia McGuinness is managing attorney at the Law Office of Paul Rein, a small firm practicing disability rights law in Oakland.

#296621

Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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