LegalBusinessWorld Posts

The Virtual Office: A Sustainable, Affordable Business Model

May 18, 2020

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 report, the median income for the average full-time wage or salary worker was approximately $48,672 per year. [1] In a 2017 report, the Federal Reserve found that four in 10 adults would not be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense. [2] In 2019, the American Bar Association found that solo and small (2-9 attorney) firms were the largest majority of the legal profession, primarily in litigation and trust and estates work. [3] Are you one of these solo or small firms? How much representation would $400 net your client? Could you afford to take them on? According to a 2017 report by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) (which does surveys of the legal landscape on behalf of the American Bar Association), 86% of low-income to no-income Americans, many of whom are located in dense, low-income areas, reported their legal problems were either not addressed, or were addressed with inadequate or under-adequate legal help. [4] In that same report, LSC found that low-income Americans reported seeking legal help for their issues only 20% of the time. Of those who responded, 70% of them indicated at least one of their civil legal problems “very much” or “severely” affected their lives. [5]

 

What if you could craft an easily accessible, sustainable business model that would not only keep your practice afloat, but ensured that you captured a portion of this population that otherwise would not be able to access affordable legal services? 

 

According to a 2019 study by digital record aggregators We Are Social and Hootsuite, nearly 95% of Americans live in an area with at least minimal internet access. That same study found that at least 90% of polled Americans had access to a mobile phone, and 77% had access to a computer. [6]

 

While there are many small changes you can implement in your own practice, the most influential will be the creation of an effective, affordable virtual office space, allowing you to take on more clients in less time, and to gather a portion of that 86% who otherwise would 

not have legal representation. 

 

The Virtual Office

Historically, when a client wanted to see an attorney, they needed to travel to the law office, try and explain their entire issue in a 30-60 minute meeting, and then return to that office whenever necessary. While there is a benefit to keeping a brick-and-mortar office location for those clients who will prefer face-to-face, rental costs can be overly prohibitive. Attorneys are beginning to turn away from the high rental costs of individualized offices, and instead leaning towards smaller, shared spaces, supplemented by their virtual office presence. 

 

Every major city has at least one of these such locations (often run by a corporate entity like WeWork or WorkBar), and many of them are starting cater to the small office setup of an attorney’s practice, providing intake and reception services. While these are cost effective for when you need an actual physical location, many small and solo attorneys are still better served by operating a pure virtual office, coupled with meeting clients directly at their homes or in public spaces.

 

With the new development of legal practice management tools, like Clio or MyCase (among many others), office management programs, virtual assistants, and digital payment systems, attorneys can operate an effective, affordable law office from their home, car, or affordable office space. 

 

According to Robert Half, client demands for 24/7 access to their information, combined with technology leveling the playing field between large firms and solo practitioners, has transformed nearly every aspect of the legal profession, from how offices are set up, to how lawyers prepare documents and consult their clients.

 

Legal Office Management

Affordable legal practice tools are an integral part of any successful small or solo law firm. In its TECHREPORT 2019 summary, the American Bar Association found that small or solo practitioners relied on three major tools in their office operations: 1) Contact software, 2) Remote Access software, and 3) Electronic Faxing. Of the “contact” software, 82% of respondents used Microsoft Outlook, while 8% cited Clio as their client contact software. While there are many other legal practice programs available that all share the space, Clio holds a significant market share.

 

Clio is a law practice management software that uses a secure web link to operate an attorney’s office and client files. Unlike Outlook, however, Clio has the ability to run an entire law practice with one application, without a separate remote connection application. If you can connect to the internet, you can connect to your office. You can organize and create documents, draft from templates, share files directly with clients, engage in secure messaging, and record time and data all in one place. Practice management tools also provide you the ability to securely transfer files to and from your clients, anywhere, anytime. Clio also provides a significant number of integrations, allowing an attorney to link to their QuickBooks or account software, as well as detailed programs, such as e-discovery or e-filing tools, as well as Microsoft’s Office suite of programs for drafting. 

My clinical study with the Accelerator Practice at Suffolk University Law School is one of these small firms (7 student attorneys) that runs entirely on Clio, and now, runs entirely remotely through its practice management software. Being able to operate your office from home 24/7 allows you to cater to your clients quicker and easier, and can be priced directly into your hourly rate. The low monthly (or yearly) cost for legal management software is easily spread out amongst your clients, and result in a significant increase in efficiency and process improvement, allowing you to take on more clients in less time.

 

Reception and Paralegal Support

With a brick-and-mortar office, you can have a paralegal, office manager, or receptionist on staff to ensure that every client goes through the proper greeting, intake, and process. But what happens if you can’t afford a receptionist? How costly is that paralegal? What happens if they are unable to work? How can you ensure that clients are taken care of when you’re a solo practitioner working from home? Companies like Ruby, Smith.ai, and Robert Half Legal provide this service to all manner of law firms for little cost.  

 

These companies offer a live receptionist who answers your office number, schedules client intake and appointments, and can forward or place calls for you. These live receptionists are exactly what you would have in your own office, but available and can be available 24/7/365 if necessary. 

 

Companies like Smith.ai combine the power of live receptionists with an AI-powered chat process that can streamline your work flow, predicting what your client needs, and providing answers immediately. This AI-based workflow allows you to directly tailor responses to your client, without having to be on-call 24/7 for them.

 

Billing costs for remote receptionists are often on a per-call basis, allowing you to decide exactly how much assistance you need, and when. For a solo practitioner, having someone available to answer calls when you are not ensures that you can connect to that business that would otherwise call someone else, or look for another provider. 

 

Remote paralegal work provides two major benefits for the small and solo attorney, first through the reduction of personnel costs and overhead, and second by the on-call nature of the professional you’re working with. Companies like Robert Half Legal or Hire an Esquire provide professional, experienced paralegals on a per-case basis, for a fixed or hourly rate. Using these services, or by finding an independent one, you can select a paralegal with a background specifically in your field on a contract basis. For many attorneys, this specialization and reduction in time cost can be substantial.

 

Video Conferencing

Until technological advancements of the late 2000’s, it was too difficult or prohibitive for a small or solo firm to engage in a video conference with a client. Clients would need their own webcam, connection, and expensive software, along with the knowledge to run it all, while an attorney would have to maintain and operate their own videoconference setup. Even something as ubiquitous as Skype requires that it is installed, detailed instructions followed, and account names and passwords remembered. What if your client is technologically illiterate? In a case study of Skype for video conferencing, a study by the National Institute of Health found that the elderly, among other groups like the homeless, were adverse to not only the program itself, but all of the steps required to implement and use it. [8] 

 

With the significant progress being made in videoconferencing during the last five to 10 years, however, even the client who relies on their grandchildren or children to help them navigate technology can be face-to-face with their attorney in seconds. An example of this slicker, easier to use process is Zoom, a video conferencing app. When an attorney or a client need to meet, the attorney schedules or invites the client to a call through their Zoom account, and the client gets a text message, email, or notification with a one-click link. From there, they can use their phone or computer to connect direct to the attorney.[9] For clients with a smartphone or tablet, Apple and Android’s integrated cameras make this process even easier. For clients with Apple products, approximately 59.53% of Americans [10], the native FaceTime application can streamline this process even further. 

 

These solutions save both you and your client time and money. The cost of the Zoom application for an attorney is generally zero, as Zoom’s “Basic” package is free to use, including nearly unlimited meeting time, 40 minute meetings for 3 or more participants, as well as further features for a small fee.  Apple’s FaceTime process is included with the device, requiring no further steps for the attorney or the client.

 

Imagine a client calls you about bad conditions in their apartment—their ceiling is falling in, there are rodents infesting the apartment, and leaks. She wants to sue the landlord, and it sounds like you’d have a pretty solid case. Normally, you would need to arrange to meet with her, evaluate her situation in your initial meeting, then schedule a time to head out to your clients apartment, take photos, and further assess. What happens if your busy schedule doesn’t allow for you to get to her soon? What if she doesn’t have a car to come to you?

 

Instead, you arrange a FaceTime call, first thing, and just as if she was sitting across from you in the office, you listen to her story, and evaluate her case. But unlike her sitting in your office, she can walk you through the apartment, there in real time, and show you the issues. She can take photos, email or text message them to you, and you can start your letter to the landlord that same day. Instead of spreading your consultation across two or three visits, you’ve reduced it to one, with little cost. This shortens your case lifecycle, and allows you to reduce travel, spending time on other cases. 

 

Paperless, Contactless Billing

The final hurdle for operating a virtual law office is billing and payments. Historically, attorneys have been averse to taking credit cards or digital currencies, instead relying on paper checks and bank transfers. While attorneys rely on this archaic model for payments, much of the world is moving toward virtual and contactless currency transfers

 as their main forms of payment.

 

According to Forbes and Cornerstone Advisors, in 2019, while consumers moved over $172 billion dollars through their banks, Paypal facilitated the transfer of over $141 billion dollars, Zelle facilitated $122 billion while Venmo (owned by Paypal) transferred over $64 billion. [11] These peer-to-peer transactions, where consumers move funds without the need for bank transfers or paper checks, are easier to use and nearly instant. That same study found that the average amount transferred between individuals ranged from $20 to $270. Paypal and Venmo share over 300 million total customer accounts as of January 2020. [12]

 

Attorneys can easily work these payment processes into their current fee structure. Paypal and Venmo, for example, charge businesses a 2.9% fee, plus at flat fee of $.30 per transaction, and if you process over $3,000 a month, the rates are reduced. Paypal also provides your clients with the chance to open lines of credit for significantly less than their banks may charge. 

 

One attorney in Boston remarked at a recent conference that when he introduced digital payments into his firm, clients overwhelmingly responded that they preferred it. Working in the taxation sphere, he proposed a 5% reduction in costs for those willing to make instant payments, and clients were able to pay the same day they picked up documents. The 5% reduction provided incentive his clients to pay digitally (and quicker), and still allowed for him to maintain costs and overhead, but meant the funds were available to him right away, instead of running through a 30-day billing cycle. 

 

For his business, keeping an account like Paypal stocked with funds made sense, as he could still transfer those funds to his regular bank account like normal, but had instant funds on hand when he needed them.

 

While an attorney cannot rely on a payment processor like Paypal or Venmo for IOTLA and client accounts, operating one of these payment accounts for fees will allow an attorney to accept much wider forms of payment, capturing those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to pay in cash or check. You can accept payments at the time of representation, without waiting for checks to clear, 30-day billing lifecycles to complete, or banks to transfer funds. An attorney can offer a slight discount on their services if payments are made at the time of representation, and gather a larger amount of those 300 million people already using digital payments.

 

Conclusion

I started writing this article before the outbreak of Covid-19, before firms across the world experienced shelter-in-place orders, limited travel for employees, isolated clients, closed courts, and the instant moving of office operations to remote-only virtual spaces. I could not have foreseen that even before I submitted this article that we were in the eve of the most intense test of the legal landscape’s ability to transition since September 11th, 2001. 

 

Only time will tell how the legal profession will be impacted, but this may signal a paradigm shift in how attorneys operate in the legal landscape, with less focus on the brick-and-mortar office presence and costly operations, and a shift towards a remote, easily maintainable office setting. 

 

 

Notes  

[1] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/wkyeng.pdf

[2] https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2017-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201805.pdf

[3] TECHREPORT 2019, American Bar Association https://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_practice/publications/techreport/abatechreport2019/solosmallfirm19/

[4] Legal Services Corporation, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans, https://www.lsc.gov/sites/default/files/images/TheJusticeGap-FullReport.pdf

[5] Id. at Page 26.

[6] We Are Social & Hootsuite, “Digital in 2019, US”  https://wearesocial.com/us/digital-2019-us 

[7] Robert Half Inc., Future Law Office: Technology’s Transformation of the Legal Field, https://www.roberthalf.com/sites/default/files/documents/RHL_FLO_evolvingLegalProf_0.pdf

[8] Zamir, S., Hennessy, C. H., Taylor, A. H., & Jones, R. B. (2018). Video-calls to reduce loneliness and social isolation within care environments for older people: an implementation study using collaborative action research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5833092/

[9] Joining a Meeting, Zoom https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/201362193

[10] “Android v. iOS Market Share” https://deviceatlas.com/blog/android-v-ios-market-share#us  

[11] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ronshevlin/2019/02/11/venmo-versus-zelle/#678df28f3c62

[12] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/24/venmo-has-40-million-users-paypal-reveals-for-first-time.html 

 

 

About the Author 

Garrett Dubois is a graduating 3L and Rule 3:03 Student Attorney with Suffolk University Law School’s Accelerator to Practice Program, a comprehensive three-year course of study and practice designed to prepare graduates to join or start sustainable law practices serving average-income individuals and families. He is also a a legal Innovation and Technology Fellow with the law school’s Legal Innovation and Technology lab, providing legal project management, process improvement, analytical data science consulting, and legal technology support to Suffolk Law clinics, aimed at improving each clinic's efficiency and processes, while solving access to justice issues related to its practice.

 

 

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