An Open Response To "Is Virtual Virtually Impossible?"

Chuck Newton and I operate similar types of practices – we both concentrate on litigation of consumer claims in bankruptcy court.  We both work from home, and practice entirely online.  We both work with professionals who come together and break apart depending on the needs of the individual case.

And up to now, Chuck and I have both called our practices, “virtual law firms,” and we’re not alone in that regard.  Grant Griffiths espouses the virtual law office concept, as does Stephanie Kimbro.  In fact, lots of lawyers use that fancy term – “virtual” – to describe how they do business.

Recently, Chuck wrote an interesting piece about virtual law firms.  And it got me to thinking.

As of this moment, I am thinking about renouncing that term.  Why?  Because I’m starting to wonder whether it’s false and misleading.

“Virtual” is defined by Wikipedia as:

Colloquially, ‘virtual’ has a similar meaning to ‘ quasi-’ or ‘pseudo-’ (prefixes which themselves have quite different meanings), meaning something that is almost something else, particularly when used in the adverbial form e.g., “He’s virtually [almost] my boyfriend”. The term recently has been defined philosophically as “that which is not real” but may display the full qualities of the real. However, by definition,[1] virtual (in contrast to energy and matter) only exists in the minds of the discerners.

. . .

Internet and communication technology fostered de-coupling of space where events happen, and storage technologies facilitate de-coupling of time between a message being sent and received. These technologies build the environment for virtual work in teams, with members who may never meet each other in person. Communicating by telephone and e-mail, with work products shared electronically, virtual teams produce results without being co-located.

Similarly, a virtual world is a type of habitation founded upon web technology that allows interactions for pursuits, such as economy and real estate.

So using that definition as a jumping-off point, a virtual law firm would be one that exists only by virtue of technology, operating solely in the ether.  It’s founded upon web technology alone, and not in the “real” world.

I think there’s a problem with that inasmuch as a law firm is comprised of professionals who possess a very real depth of knowledge and experience in a particular form.  Those individuals may reside (i.e., work) in the same physical location or not, but that’s immaterial – would you call Skadden, the biggest law firm in the country, a virtual law firm merely because professionals are scattered around the globe?  I think not.

And why is that?  Because Skadden has a bunch of brick-and-morter locations where people buzz around all day and night, doing important lawyer stuff.

Here’s the thing: Chuck Newton and I both work from our homes and use technology to leverage our knowledge.  It allows us to compete against the biggest adversaries with the deepest pockets, to work faster and more efficiently.  He’s got people who don’t commute to his “office” each day, and so do I.  But that doesn’t make our firms any less real, any less tangible, any less significant.  To call use “virtual” is to minimize our impact, our professionalism, our abilities.

We aren’t virtual lawyers, we’re lawyers who work from home.  Our offices may be partially virtual inasmuch as they are organized using web technologies, but they are not truly virtual.  They exist, they are merely decentralized in terms of technology.

Let’s call this what it is – home lawyering as a means of downshifting, and of retaining more of your profits rather than spending on fancy office space, and of getting the best talent to work with you rather than being limited by the pool of people in your area.  As for me, I did it because I was sick and tired of seeing 80% of my gross profits going out the window, commuting rather than spending the time with family or doing work, and putting on a suit each day because that’s what I thought clients expected of a lawyer.  And the fact that a decent entry-level employee was costing me a fortune due to the high cost of living in New York City, of course.

When I slashed that all out I found a number of things occurred:

  • I was able to keep 95% of my gross income as net profit, so I could choose to (a) take on fewer clients, (b) charge less money, or (c) both.
  • I was more productive because I wasn’t stressed out about getting to work on time.
  • I was spending more time with my family and attending to household matters.
  • My clients came from a territory far larger than New York City – in fact, my clients were now from all over the state.
  • Client satisfaction was way up as a result of implementing technology to allow clients the ability to obtain file information online 24/7/365.
  • It didn’t matter to me quite so much if a client cancelled an appointment with me.
  • My food bills went down because I wasn’t eating lunch downtown.
  • My staffers were of higher quality because I could pick and choose the best and brightest from around the world, nor just the people who happened to be seeking work in New York City.
  • Clients were happy that they didn’t have to trek all the way to my office in order get help.

The reality is that what Chuck calls a virtual law office makes sense economically as well as for marketing purposes.  But it need not be the only way you operate – in fact I know a lot of bankruptcy lawyers who have “real” offices yet allow people to consult with them by phone (clients who are in the military, for example).  Would you call these lawyers virtual?  Well, they are to SOME of their clients.

The upshot is this – practice in a way that opens the doors to your prospects, the people wih whom you want to work.  Practice in a way that cuts your costs to the bone, maximizes your profitability, and keeps you happy.  Practice in a way that gives you a competitive edge, so long as doing so is ethical and legal.  Practice in a way that gives you what you want out of the world.

Do that and you’ll be virtually unstoppable.