As all professional sectors continue to engage with and implement digital strategies, efficiencies and technologies, the future of law practice is becoming more and more virtual based each year. Francine Ryan, Lecturer in Law and member of the Open Justice Centre at The Open University Law School, discusses what exactly that might look like.
Technology is transforming the way in which legal services are delivered, requiring lawyers to have new skills and competencies. Technology has facilitated the creation of the ‘virtual law firm’, with a growing number of legal professionals choosing to work ‘virtually’. So, what exactly is a virtual law firm and how do they differ from traditional law firms?
A virtual law firm is a legal practice subject to the same rules and regulations as a traditional law firm but which uses technology as the primary method of working with clients. Legal services are delivered online through secure web-based technologies where documents are exchanged, and communication is encrypted and protected. It gives lawyers freedom to work from ‘virtually’ anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection. Often, lawyers working for virtual law firms have more flexible employment arrangements.
A virtual law firm is a legal practice subject to the same rules and regulations as a traditional law firm but which uses technology as the primary method of working with clients.
Varying degrees of ‘virtual’ exist, some law firms operate entirely online whereas others choose to retain an office where the support functions of the firm are carried out. Flex law, Indio, Scott-Moncrieff and Matrix Legal are examples of differing models of ‘virtual law firms’ offering a range of legal services.
The virtual law firm is a new business model driven by technology reflecting changes in work practices. Lawyers have flexibility to work where and when they want without the distractions of office politics! Avoiding the daily commute allows lawyers to optimise their time at work, freeing up time to devote to other activities. Working flexibly may offer a healthier work life balance. An office without bricks and mortar has lower running costs, meaning clients can benefit from lower charge out rates. The business model is more agile, it can afford to offer clients more creative fee structures, which helps to attract and retain more business. The rise of digital technologies may lead to the creation of virtual law firms who can offer affordable solutions to consumers and small businesses to address the growing access to justice crisis.
The business model is more agile, it can afford to offer clients more creative fee structures, which helps to attract and retain more business.
Working virtually is not for everyone, it requires high levels of self-discipline and, for some, being outside a traditional office environment can be isolating. Despite the proverbial office politics there are many advantages of working in an office including interacting with colleagues and having a clear demarcation between work and home. Many clients want a law firm with a traditional office space and a physical presence is an important way of generating new business. Realistically working virtually is only an option for more experienced lawyers who can work independently.
A growth in virtual law firms may have a negative impact on the job market because it may result in fewer opportunities for the junior end of the profession. However just as we are seeing the emergence of virtual lawyers, we are now seeing the creation of virtual paralegals or virtual legal assistants, performing tasks such as legal research, drafting documents, litigation support, and document review. Technological developments will only serve to fuel the growth of virtual law firms and further transform the way in which lawyers work.
Most law firms already work with clients online and into the future elements of virtual law firm technology will become mainstream. Law firms need law students to have an awareness of the impact of technology on legal practice. A greater emphasis exists on law students having technological skills but also the ability to work and collaborate online. Nowadays a common feature of the workplace is using different forms of technology to collaborate with people in and outside of an organisation. Learning to work as part of a team both online and offline is critical.
Law students should embrace every opportunity to practice their communication and teamwork skills, one way to achieve this is to take advantage of any pro bono activities offered at law school. Working in a law clinic, giving a street law presentation, or volunteering for the Personal Support Unit or Citizens Advice are not just important opportunities to apply legal knowledge and skills in practical settings, they support the development of transferable professional skills. At, The Open University, law students can volunteer in the Open Justice Law Clinic which is an innovative virtual law clinic, giving students the opportunity to engage in online collaboration.
Employers are not just looking for technical legal knowledge, law graduates need to have ‘soft skills’ which can be characterised as ‘people, social or interpersonal skills’. Although we might be moving to a world of virtual law firms the ability to communicate and work effectively both online and offline is vital to securing future employment.
This article was originally published in Lawyer Monthly. Click to read the original article.