I launched SpringLaw 3 years ago. It was on April Fool’s Day 2017 and a friend of mine questioned whether I should delay it by a day so that people would not mistake my launch of a virtual law firm as a joke. My assistant Sandi and I proceeded to launch aways, figuring we’d be in the clear by noon that day.

Fast forward to three years later: we are in a very different world. Even before the current virus pandemic, the ease and comfort of communicating and working through tech have moved forward at such a fast clip.

Over the last few weeks (yes, the virus has only been here for a few weeks!), the world has been forced to face remote working and to engage in the online economy. For those of us already there, it’s been no big deal, but it’s not a system you can just whip up overnight.

Here are my thoughts on the key ingredients to a successful online law firm.

How to Set Up a Virtual Law Firm

A good tech and video conferencing set-up makes remote work very similar to working in a bricks & mortar office. Let me repeat: very similar. Not inferior, not “almost as good”, not “until we can meet up after social distancing is over”.

I have always believed a tech-based virtual firm can be as good or better than a traditional in-person firm, as long as there is careful planning, intentional systems of accountability, both formal and informal communications systems, a true open-door policy when mentoring juniors, and a deliberate mapping out of tech that syncs up seamlessly together.

Connect People

We are currently a team of 8, in order of appearance: HilaryJaniceMarnieJessicaDanielleDeidre and Amanda. My team is by far the most valuable asset of SpringLaw. It remains my daily focus and priority and no law firm can succeed without constant attention to its people. My team inspires me daily, teaches me, brings great ideas to the table, and is the backbone of SpringLaw’s future.

We are on the google platform, have various chat rooms, daily video calls, a mandatory weekly all-team video call to talk through legal issues, quarterly in-person meetups for bonding and strategy talks, an annual overnight retreat, and daily telephone and in-document collaboration.

We’ve become giphy professionals (Sally Triangle being my fav win shoutout gif) and the day to day humour, fun and emotional support are the backbone of the firm. I want people to want to come to work, to feel motivated and inspired by our colleagues, and to always feel valued on our team.

More Inclusive

If planned out properly, the deliberate communications and collaboration systems can amount to more inclusiveness in the office, more regular check-ins, and more 1:1 facetime between mentors and mentees. Gone are the cliques and clubs of a traditional firm, where a lot of the mentoring happens at lunch in the food court or when a partner takes a particular shine to someone he sees as his successor. Women are usually on the losing end of that approach, regardless of how many golf lessons we take or sports scores we memorize. Introverts and nose-down lawyers who want to get out of the office instead of doing the post-5pm debriefs and war storytime also benefit from a more organized, online system.

A law firm is about people, about our learning environment, staying up to date on the law, developing practical legal skills and having the safe space to make mistakes and grow. This has never just happened by wandering through the halls and “absorbing” learning. People will always get lost in the shuffle in that traditional system. A deliberate online system can really help plug people directly into the warp core of the firm and not get lost on the sidelines.

Whether it’s our current articling student Deidre, our 2019 student Sherifa, our junior colleague Oren who worked with us in 2019, or our current mid-level lawyer Danielle, having standing weekly meetings to review files and be available for questions builds confident, skilled lawyers. Our senior lawyers Hilary and Marnie each participate actively in mentoring, supporting the team and just being super nice people to newer lawyers in the firm. This is no different in a traditional firm, but because we don’t just bump into each other in the hallways, our scheduled interactions ensure regular and frequent internal coaching.

Work Product Collaboration

Aside from the formal and informal mentoring, being able to work directly in documents with colleagues in real-time, while on a video or phone call brings collaboration to a new level. Rather than sitting across the desk from a senior partner, watching him or her revise your draft with a red pen, then sending it over to an assistant to do up, then email or save that draft as another version (was it version 2 or 2b or the one with the new name? or new date?), you just sit virtually side by side and work on it together, often while on a video or telephone call at the same time.

We can do edits together, hammer through rush jobs faster, see and talk through each other’s revisions for teaching moments, and save so much time. Working remotely across Ontario means our systems assume we will not see each other and builds in digital connection and systems. Making all of your client documents, communications, files and resources paperless and available to all will make your collaboration seamless and efficient.

Clients Dig It

“But I really want to go meet my lawyer in their fancy office in person” – said hardly any 21st-century client ever.

When a person seeks out legal help, they are usually at a moment of crisis or at the least, have a big expensive problem to solve. In that pressing moment, does your client really want to pack up all their paperwork and files, get into a car or on the subway, find their way in the PATH or parking lot, go into a beautiful, expensive looking lobby, be greeted with expensive coffee to keep them occupied while they wait in that lobby wondering how much of their hourly bill goes to the fresh flowers on the reception desk, and then make their way home or back to work afterwards in traffic and hassle?

Other than at litigation proceedings, we do not meet clients in person and have had to turn away around 3-4 people in the last 3 years because of that. However, we’ve gained many, many more clients because of our virtual set up and our ability to reach clients without geographic restrictions.

If the whole point is to talk to a lawyer and be advised on an issue or documents, why not just email the docs and have a video call? It saves the client so much time, they can sit in the comfort of their own home or convenience of their office. If you focus on making your intake process as digital as possible, then meeting up with a lawyer the same day is often possible. Clients don’t want to wait around until next week’s appointment anymore. They do, however, typically want to combine the digital onboarding with a personal check-in, usually by phone.

Our Administrative Secret Sauces

When building out a virtual firm, the nature of the admin roles shifts. I don’t need any front line assistants to type out my letters or file my emails. We focus more on what admin professionals we need to support our clients and our team in a tech-integrated manner.

Our Client Services Manager, Jessica, is our secret sauce to ensuring the digital process doesn’t get in the way of a personal touch, and to build trust with potential clients looking for a lawyer. Our Office Manager, Janice, is the secret sauce for anyone with invoice or billing related issues and is the brains and talent behind so much of our firm’s systems, financial strategy, HR, tech set up and pretty much everything else.  Our Project Manager, Amanda is our secret sauce for supporting our team, organizing our in-person meetings and building out our online solutions.

I realize there are areas of law where the client doesn’t have the tech skills or resources to access the law online. This is a serious A2J issue we’ll collectively need to figure out, but not a concern for most of your typical clients already in the pipeline.

The Clients Changed Years Ago Anyway

I’ve had old-school lawyers approach me at law gatherings (yes! I do still go to things in person!) and say you cannot replace the eye to eye in-person experience. Those same people are now bragging about their (3 week-old) Zoom skills and how effective their online services are. Change is hard for humanity, but the sooner lawyers realize that their clients pivoted years ago, the sooner we’ll get out of our ivory towers where we think our services are so fundamentally different or more profound than any other serious personal or business issue out there.

What clients really want is cost-effective, efficient, relevant, practical, down-to-earth, personal and real legal advice. Having tech and digital support for all of that is a win-win for growing your firm and serving your clients in a way that better resonates with most people out there in the real world.

COVID-19 has ushered in a new reality that, for some, will be a permanent change. For others, a welcome acknowledgement that remote working is just no biggie.

Thank you to all of our clients, friends and family for all of your support during our first 3 years. Here’s to 30 more!