Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
September/October 2006, by Delia Venables

Five Virtual Law Firms
Special feature prepared by Delia Venables

Whilst many lawyers have been following the progress of the Draft Legal Services Bill, another change is quietly taking place in the legal market which may, in the end, prove to be just as important - the arrival of confident and successful virtual law firms. This newsletter has covered virtual chambers and virtual law firms in past issues but this issue is concerned just with virtual firms of solicitors. Having said that, barristers are also involved in setting up some of the new virtual law firms so perhaps that is another way in which changes are taking place below the political radar but which could prove to be very significant in the long run.

In this feature, five virtual law firms describe how and why they set up their firms, how they are run, and how they see the future. It may affect how we see the future, too.

Family Law International
by Amanda Quinn, barrister

Family Law International web page
We are the baby of this esteemed group of virtual law firms, having officially gone live only at the beginning of June this year. The site went up just after 9pm on 31st May (and crikey the champagne flowed!) and our first call from a potential client was at 8.45 a.m. on June 1st! We opened two files that day and so far, we haven’t looked back.

FLI, www.familylawinternational.com is 'just' a specialist family practice at the moment, but operating under our parent firm, Ravencourt Legal Services Limited, we are due to go live in September with a personal injury site, P I Solicitors Online; and at the beginning of next year with a generalist site, The Online Law Firm, mainly to capture the areas the other two firms do not cover, such as inheritance and conveyancing. All the sites will link to each other, so if a potential client cannot find what they are looking for on one, hopefully one of the others will answer their problem. Where we can, we also refer to other virtual firms, for example, I have told quite a few clients to check out Andrew Woolley's site (see below) for areas we do not cover.

We currently have international clients as well as UK clients with an international element to their case. We also have clients around the country: because we are solely online our clients are literally anywhere and everywhere. So far we have had no requests for face to face meetings but we could arrange these should we need to. This is probably because we market ourselves to the younger, net savvy clients, who simply aren't interested in meeting us – they just want us to crack on and get the job done.

What we have noticed is that the vast majority of our enquiries and clients are from London and the surrounding area, who amusingly tell us that we are incredibly cheap compared to London high street rates.

How it works

We do not have a formal office, but we do have an admin centre to deal with the phones and the post at the head office of the parent firm, which is a traditional high street law firm, although we run pretty much independently from them. There are currently four lawyers (two barristers and two solicitors) and another solicitor set to join us in October once she has completed her notice period.

At the moment we are an incestuous group in that I and the other barrister are real-life partners, the principal is one of his best friends, and the other solicitor is my best friend. In addition, the solicitor set to join us was the head of the family department at the firm I worked at before joining the bar, so we currently all meet up to discuss the work stuff and then do the leisure thing afterwards. We are developing the concept of 'Family Law Fridays' which is that, on one Friday each month, the staff and the fee-earners all get together for dinner and drinks to re-group. Day to day we communicate by email and telephone.

We do not provide secretaries to our fee earners simply because I don't see the need, although that may be a bar thing - you are expected to do it yourself there, so I just don't see the problem! Should we have a fee earner who really wants one we are likely to offer voice recognition software or digital dictation - that is a bridge we will cross at the time. We are about to get the Osprey practice management system from Pracctice up and running, and the library is a mix of traditional and online resources. All the post comes into and out of the admin office and the telephones are answered there and transferred to the fee earner wherever they are. We open until 8pm each evening, so the phones are diverted to my Blackberry at 5pm, which will also pick up the email web enquiries.

The income is shared variously. Barristers cannot fee share, so we are self employed contractors. The solicitors do fee share, and they earn substantially more than they would doing the same job out in the 'real' world.

Why do it?

The idea came from Delia and Nick’s online course “Whither the Legal Web?” I am a specialist family barrister and was becoming increasingly frustrated with my practice at the independent bar. I found myself doing more and more care work and less ancillary relief. I was very bored with being so niche - it felt like every day was the same, with the only difference being the names! This frustration was coupled with the fact I was trying to do my own divorce at a time I literally did not have time to sneeze, so wished I could bat that problem off to someone who didn't expect me to take an afternoon (which often meant the day) out of court to go along to their offices to watch them pen push.

I had been contemplating leaving the bar for a while, but was stopped by the fact that I love the law, and was looking for alternative avenues to practice when I read Delia's e-book. After reading all about Andrew Woolley's firm (sorry Andrew!), the idea began to germinate and came to fruition while I was off work in January after a minor operation. I approached a friend of my partner with a proposal to set up FLI and the other two sites under the auspices of his current firm - I of course cannot own a law firm, being a barrister. Because we are an 'add on' to a traditional firm, the Law Society have so far not raised any concerns.

I believe that this is a model that will grow and grow. I was becoming slightly nervous before we went live that perhaps the market that I assumed would be there may not be. However, those concerns were short lived. So many people are interested in joining us from both arms of the profession that we probably will not have to advertise to recruit for many years. Recruiting friends or people we know professionally anyway also cuts down some of the worries regarding fee earners working remotely in that we will have a fair idea of their temperament and approach. Working from home makes life easier for all that do it, but as a mum of a young child it extends my working day considerably in that there is no commuting time to factor in and because after her bedtime I can continue to work should I choose to.

Amanda Quinn, amanda@familylawinternational.com.

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