According to new research, there are now over 800 lawyers working for ‘virtual’ law firms in the UK. Advances in technology has paved the way for so-called ‘virtual lawyers’, a group of self-employed lawyers harnessing remote IT access and flexible working hours to provide competitive fee arrangements to clients. We speak to a range of legal experts about the advent of the ‘virtual lawyer’ and what impact this might have on the legal market.
Defining the ‘virtual lawyer’
For Mark Harrison, managing partner at Flexlaw Solicitors, a virtual lawyer is one who is able to provide a full service to clients but at a lower cost because of their reduced overheads. ‘Virtual’, he says, doesn’t necessarily equate to second best, but usually indicates the lawyer ( through the use of technology) is going to have a degree of remoteness from the client on a day-to-day basis.
Having said that, remoteness is not a defining feature, and Harrison says virtual lawyers can meet ‘face-to-face’ when needed with routine work ‘actioned by email and telephone’ and marketing via digital investment and social media.
In terms of law firm set-up, Tariq Mubarak, managing director at Matrix Legal says the law firm could be a dedicated virtual law firm, sometimes referred to as a ‘dispersed law firm’, or could be a ‘traditional law firm, where the virtual lawyer happens to work remotely’.
He adds ‘this arrangement is akin to barristers and chambers’ with virtual lawyers usually remunerated on a profit share or ‘pay-as-you-bill’ basis, ie they share a percentage of their billing with their umbrella law firm.
Placing greater onus on the technology aspect, Chad E Burton, chief executive officer at CuroLegal, says the virtual lawyer is simply a lawyer who ‘leverages technology to run a modern law firm outside the traditional brick and mortar setting’.
This, he adds, typically means lawyers have established a cloud-based tech ecosystem in which their firm can easily interact with clients across the globe. In this set-up office space is leveraged where/when needed but is secondary to delivering legal services.
Virtual versus traditional
Burton says virtual law models are by definition ‘lean’ in nature which provide for greater ‘agility and flexibility’ in how the lawyer delivers legal services. This is a great benefit to virtual lawyering in so far as it gives the lawyer a chance to try different fee structures and service offerings that may or may not work from a business perspective.
This holds an advantage over traditional law firms, he argues, as often, ‘traditional law firms get stuck in their current model because they have heavy operational costs—whether that comes in the form of legacy technology, office space and/or personnel’.
Harrison adds this self-employment often brings ‘increased productivity with no wasted commuting time or expense’ and with that direct benefits to the client, who receives an ‘individual tailored service at a very competitive price’.
This potentially allows virtual lawyers to work from anywhere in the world, thus enhancing their quality of life. With that, Mubarak adds, comes higher income due to higher percentage of billing retained, no office politics and flexible work hours—‘no need to clock in at 9am and out at 6pm’.
The downside to virtual
Just like a traditional firm, you are running a business, but doing so in a more creative, modern fashion which, argues Burton, ‘tends to be entrepreneurial’. With that, he says, comes the risk that trying ‘new delivery models’ could ultimately fail.
Some lawyers may also find that they cannot effectively work outside a traditional office environment, Burton says, ‘like with any practice, discipline is critical’. There is also the added uncertainty, Mubarak adds, that under a virtual model ‘income is not guaranteed’.
Law firms may also not have a master plan or grand vision in respect of overall growth. This is problematic, Mubarak argues, as the primary purpose of the law firm may become about ‘increasing the number of virtual lawyers rather than enlarging the client base’.
A lack of peer-to-peer discussion is also potentially damaging and as Harrison reports, ‘you do miss the social aspect of daily interaction with colleagues’ although as a court-based lawyer he says he is normally ‘out and about’ and so that mitigates this somewhat.
Maintaining contact with clients
If you’re a virtual lawyer it is often assumed that means you no longer have any direct or face-to-face contact with clients, however, as Burton explains, that is not necessarily always the case.
Burton says it really depends on how you define ‘direct contract’. As a lawyer working for a large law firm, he often does not meet clients face to face—as with other areas of life, email and phone are the preferred method of communication with clients.
However, this does not apply to all and there are several type of virtual models. Some, he says ‘are solo lawyers who only deliver limited-scope services’ online through a client portal, whereas, others are ‘multi-jurisdictional who deliver full service representation outside the brick-and-mortar setting’.
In respect of ‘direct’ client contact, Mubarak says a virtual lawyer, ‘freed from the 9am to 6pm desk job and office politics’ should have more flexibility and therefore more time to spend with clients.
Harrison agrees and says, for the most part, ‘our clients are in direct contact with their solicitor’ and know that person will be dealing with their matter personally. The absence of secretaries, he says, means there is often ‘no filter between the lawyer and clients’.
The type of clients attracted to using a virtual lawyer, according to Mubarak, do not differ—most clients engage the individual lawyer, ‘who may or may not have a team working with him/her’.
He says the main thing for clients is to have contact with their chosen lawyer, regardless of ‘whether or not they are virtual’.
Burton adds many people work for companies that have team members who are mobile or work from home and does not think care too much about whether a firm is virtual. The more important aspect, he says, is that they ‘want great service at affordable costs’.
Interviewed by Ioan Marc Jones. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.