In a rapidly changing legal marketplace, law firms need to make bold, proactive changes in how legal services are delivered, according to the 2016 Report on the State of the Legal Market by the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor.
In the report, it suggests a shift in focus of law firms. However, resistance to change can make it difficult for firms to adopt new strategies such as redesigning work processes, adopting new staffing models or setting new pricing strategies.
In addition, the report states many firms are still locked into a “billable hour mentality,” inhibiting creative alternative approaches to the delivery of legal services — such as virtually.
“Firms that are able to redesign their models to better respond to the changing demands and expectations of their clients will have a substantial long-term competitive advantage,” said James W. Jones, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession and one of the report’s authors.
Virtual practices are emerging in various iterations, driven by the practice’s client base. Those practices range from solo practitioners to large firms, according to the American Bar Association.
According to the association, virtual firms can be full service, handling areas from real estate planning to business mergers to criminal defense.
From a client’s perspective, the work completed does not look different than a traditional firm’s — the only difference is how the firm operates in the background.
In regards to new pricing strategies mentioned in the report, virtual fees are lower.
“When firms are able to reduce the expenses of operating the business, this should be passed along to the clients,” Chad Burton, the founding attorney of Burton Law LLC, a virtual law firm headquartered out of Dayton with locations in Columbus, wrote in the association’s blog.
Since virtual law firms have no true “office,” the cloud helps drive these models.
Virtual law firms are a paperless work environment, housing documents in the cloud, according to Burton.
“Which is better: a client calling with a question that requires the review of a particular document and the lawyer spending hours trying to find a document that somebody misplaced, or accessing the document in seconds through an online system,” Burton questioned.
“Which is better: risking the loss of an all-paper office after a natural disaster or having data stored online, encrypted and redundantly backed up and accessible from any online connection?”
Virtual firms also create collaborative work environments for lawyers working from different locations with the ability to access the same information simultaneously, he said.
When developing a virtual law firm model, Burton gave several key factors to consider: Why are you doing this in the first place; what clients will the firm serve; what is the ideal lawyer profile for the firm; what cloud-based tools are needed to serve the clients and allow the lawyers to collaborate; how can the firm’s staffing needs be satisfied to support the lawyers and clients; and how will lawyers be compensated in a way that supports the firm culture?
Although these questions were directed for virtual firms, Burton said these are questions any law firm should be asking as the ways of doing business are constantly changing.
“Five to 10 years from now, this will simply be called practicing law,” he said. “Until then, the label ‘virtual law firm’ makes sense to help the profession understand the opportunities, implement the new technology, and highlight the way clients expect to be served.”