Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
May/June 2004, by Delia Venables

Running a Virtual Law Firm
by Andrew Woolley

In 1996 I left my partnership in a traditional, but very well run, law firm to start my present firm, Woolley & Co, Solicitors. You can see our websites at www.e-lawfirm.co.uk and www.divorce-lawfirm.co.uk.

I had decided to work by myself, keeping overheads to a minimum. I had also studied at Warwick Business School and had been thinking about how the traditional model of a law firm might change in the modern world.

I wanted to remove “unnecessary” overheads such as a physical office, a reception area, receptionists, office juniors and even secretaries! I quickly found that using voice recognition software was too slow and so I started to use a very experienced secretary who lived locally and worked for a few businesses, paid on a per letter basis. It is incredible how much faster such people are than those in my last office! Of course, I only paid her when she was working directly on my work. We moved quickly to digital sound files instead of tapes and that means I can e-mail my “tapes” to her and she e-mails the completed documents back to me.

We then started on the first website which, looking back, now appears primitive but it was one of the first for a small law firm. I also needed to take on more lawyers. I have found that only those who are confident, mature and probably with a following (if not, why not?) work well with us.

How we work

We now have 7 lawyers, all working from home offices. All are very experienced (the average being 20+ years post admission) and all specialise in a particular area of work. I make sure that I get to know and trust them before they start. We find that regular team meetings are important and we place great store upon a feeling of belonging and involvement. I do not expect any of them to leave for another firm - why should they? This is a long term commitment and if I listen to their concerns and their ideas and then act upon them (or explain why not) we all know where we are going and how we are going to get there.

We have an experienced professional Marketing Director and a Finance Director. We also use a very experienced legal cashier - possibly the best monthly investment I make is in the knowledge that our accounts are absolutely “up to the mark” and dealt with by a “stickler” for the letter of the rules! We have had to agree with the Law Society that all monies come through Head Office i.e. my office. That is slightly inconvenient but perhaps one day we can talk to them again! We did have an early visit from the compliance people but I found that an open attitude and expressing the wish to comply and change if needed, to reassure them, worked wonders. Incidentally, we have had no claims and no complaints in 7 years, so I feel we have proved ourselves in this respect.

Rules such as money laundering do worry me, but we have all been trained using a CD programme of course!

We have an IT consultant who is able to access (securely) the lawyers’ computers and “take them over remotely” if there is a technical problem. We use a secure outside server to exchange information, store knowledge and store back-ups etc. We have routers with firewalls, tip top virus and intrusion software....but I don't see any more vulnerability for a "virtual" firm than a normal firm. Those who go on and on about IT security forget about burglaries of offices and the normal situation there which is that filing cabinets are generally left unlocked (and even when locked it is not hard to get into them as any office junior knows when their boss has leant against the lock and has no key!)

The work we do is all business related (e-commerce, insolvency, commercial, commercial property, commercial disputes and so on) and the only private client area we cover is divorce. In all of these areas we have had no difficulty in attracting work from people knowing that we run as a “virtual” law firm, indeed it has been a positive issue when speaking to e-commerce businesses who regard offices as a strange concept and are very well aware that it is the client who pays for them! However, I cannot imagine being able to do legal aid, conveyancing or mass PI claims in this firm, even if only partly due to my need to supervise the post and the accounts.

Websites

Our websites have been extremely successful for us. The www.e-lawfirm.co.uk site has won several awards and attracted a lot of traffic. We get clients directly from reading it. That said, this year we are totally redeveloping it. We intend to engage more with the visitors, to set up an area for on-line paid-for seminars on subjects such as "marketing by e-mail", to offer packaged law and documents on-line and to take on-line payment.

www.divorce-lawfirm.co.uk is designed to give all the information we would normally provide in a first free interview, so we no longer do those. If a client clicks to have a meeting with us and pays, they are serious people and we find that very little of our time is wasted.

Overall, we now get 63% of our clients from our websites.

What are the Advantages?

  • Lower overheads—massively so.

  • Flexibility if profits go down rapidly—the typists, marketing and FD roles are all fulfilled by outsourcing.

  • Lawyers feel “free”, proud to be in the forefront and much less tired - we reckon between us we save 1.7 days per week travelling!

  • Speed: e-mail is our normal channel of communication.

    What are the Disadvantages?

  • You have to do a lot yourself - for example, I found that I did not know how to fold letters to fit in window envelopes!

  • Holiday cover is a major bother. There is no secretary to read the letters and to know which need to be referred so we have to refer everything to a colleague.

  • The cost of IT cover is considerable, especially as the PCs are spread out.

  • We cannot get enough lawyers who want to work like this! At the moment we are recruiting lawyers for wills/tax, business advice and divorce.

    Summary

    I am not aware of any other firm doing what we are doing and long may that continue! However, I am not sure I would want to go over about 10 lawyers in the firm.

    Will this become the way to do things? I do not think so. It is very hard to move from being a traditional firm to a “virtual” one and most people are probably happy with the way they do things at the moment. In addition, most smaller firms do a lot of conveyancing and this is not appropriate to this form of working.

    Andrew Woolley, aw@e-lawfirm.co.uk.

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