A virtual law firm – Woolley & Co
Over the last couple of years, we have covered a whole series of virtual firms in this newsletter. In some cases, the firms have sprung up as a fully-formed (but usually one-person) virtual firm; in others, the firm has gently moved from being a “normal” firm with “proper” premises, to becoming virtual in stages.
There is no doubt that the ever-improving technology has aided this process; indeed, without advanced IT and the internet in particular, these firms could not exist. For example:
- Virtual firms are finding the majority of their new clients via their website. For some types of work (eg expat divorce or some types of business) the “reach” of the internet is enabling them to find clients who would otherwise never get to know about the firm.
- They are communicating with their clients and other bodies via email, text, blogs, Twitter or other media.
- Many court and government bodies are now more than happy to communicate over the internet (this reduces their costs as well).
- Whilst there has to be some sort of premises and postal address for regulation purposes, this is often the home address of the person setting up the firm; other fee earners mostly work in their own homes.
- Practice and case management is run as “Software as a Service”, releasing lawyers from most aspects of IT support at the same time as allowing them access to all their client and firm’s information from wherever they are.
- Telephone, fax and post can all largely be converted into online or digital form with the added advantage that “the office” is wherever the fee-earner is working at that particular moment.
- Lawyers are either doing their own typing and document preparation or they are using one of the many transcription services now operating via the internet, in many cases using secretaries based in other countries; legal secretaries (in the traditional sense) are almost unknown in virtual firms.
- Library services have gone online so that, for a fee, lawyers can access all the information they need.
- CPD can be obtained online.
- Marketing and website services can be outsourced to firms designed to handle these activities.
The biggest benefit to the firm in being virtual is that (with a bit of luck and lots of good management) the costs of running the firm are greatly reduced, thereby giving them a considerable advantage in competition with “normal” firms.
For individual lawyers, the biggest benefit is that they are able to maintain a life balance nearer to what they actually want.
There are many management issues to be considered, including how to generate (and maintain) a feeling for, and loyalty to, the firm and it can be quite difficult to maintain some control over what is going on with the “virtual” lawyers. These are ongoing issues but most virtual firms seem to be coping with them by regular (real life) meetings of one sort or another.
The virtual law firms
I contacted all the firms who have previously appeared in the newsletter as virtual firms to ask how they are getting on and how they are faring in these tricky financial times. Following is a brief summary of the basic facts about each firm, and the comments they have kindly provided.
Mark Harrison firstname.lastname@example.org
Started 2005 – 1 fee earner – civil litigation
I’m pleased that the technologies I’ve invested in allow me to work virtually and without any full time support staff. However, holiday cover remains a real issue and I’m now a bit fed up of carting my Blackberry around and worrying about reception when I’m meant to be relaxing. This, for me, is the final problem that I am now working on putting right.
George Bisnought email@example.com
Started 2009 – 8 fee earners – business law
The market conditions are good for us; we have managed to find several high calibre ex-city lawyers and there is business out there for those firms who are client-centric and can deliver quality commercial legal advice at a competitive fee. The threats for us come from within the profession e.g. ever-changing and increasing regulation and professional indemnity insurance costs!
James Knight firstname.lastname@example.org
Started 2002 – 85 fee earners – services to companies
Keystone now has 10 different commercial practice areas and a new practice area, Private Client, will be added mid-September by the acquisition of that department from city firm Bates, Wells & Braithwaite. We currently have 85 experienced solicitors and expect to reach 100 by year end. Turnover for 2008-2009 was £8.2 million. By the way, Keystone is the first and only law firm to receive the Carbon Trust Standard!
Michael Pope email@example.com
Started 2008 – 1 fee earner – employment, litigation and commercial
There is undoubtedly increasing interest in virtual law firms. Our hosted software supplier, Pracctice Limited, has had a large number of enquiries about its software “Osprey” following the recent legal press coverage of virtual law firms. It is possible that there could be quite a large increase in the number of virtual firms over the next year or two, partly due to the recession but also due to the changes to the legal landscape which are expected over the next few years. For our part, we are actively recruiting consultants, developing into new areas of work and raising the profile of our on-line services.
Katherine Evans firstname.lastname@example.org
Started Jan 2007 – 1 fee earner
Legal Hobbit is continuing to thrive in the difficult market conditions due to the niche nature of the practice and its low virtual firm overheads. Existing clients have retained their spend with the firm, and previously peripheral clients have transferred more of their outside counsel spend to us. What continues to prove challenging is finding lawyers with the right breadth of international telecoms experience willing to join a relatively unknown virtual law firm, even one with the blue chip client base of Legal Hobbit.
Mark Roberts email@example.com
Started 2002 – 2 fee earners – IT, telecomms, e-commerce etc
Generally speaking I’d say that we haven’t noticed any downturn in work as yet. This may simply be because a lot of our clients supply software and services to local or central government, where IT projects appear to continue unabated. We do have some clients facing difficulties though – particularly those that supply IT and services to the financial services and shipping sectors. If times do become tough then, as a virtual firm, it would be comparatively easy for us to “batten down the hatches” and weather the storm – our overheads are thankfully very low indeed.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff firstname.lastname@example.org
Started 2001 – 60 fee earners – mental health, prison law, children, mainly legal aid
The firm has continued to grow, and we now have nearly 60 consultants, including an increasing number undertaking non-legal aid personal injury and employment cases. We also have a consultant who specialises in taking cases on behalf of service personnel against the Ministry of Defence, and we are in discussion with an environmental lawyer who we hope will be further expanding the range of areas we cover.
A number of our consultants have come to us after being made redundant, and they find that they can make a very satisfactory living doing the same amount of work as proved uneconomic for their firms. We are sticking to our 70/30 split of revenues, but because we have more people we are able to provide more and better services and support.
Our latest venture is into cloud computing, which will allow us to treat all our IT needs like a utility, where we pay a company for what we use and leave them with the headache of providing, maintaining and updating the service, as well as giving us unlimited access to a helpline that understands the IT needs (and limitations) of lawyers. We have recently signed the contracts and should be fully operational some time in October.
Heather Rose email@example.com
Started Feb 2008 – 2 fee earners – family law
We started with mainly local clients, but we are now finding our clients are coming from a wider area.
Andrew Woolley firstname.lastname@example.org
Started 1996 – 15 fee earners – family law for UK and expats abroad
Having grown from just one (me) to 15 now, the firm is doing well and our fee earners are spread around England and Wales. Over 50 per cent of our business is generated directly from our website. In September we will be launching a new site divorcemyths.co.uk to coincide with the publication of our new book 101 Myths and Misconceptions about Divorce and Separation. There is now even a commercial off-shoot from Woolley & Co – Cousins Business Law, also effectively a virtual firm.
Firms closed or merged
Three virtual firms covered in the past are now closed or incorporated into other firms: Lawyers Direct, Network Law and The Legal Desk.
Delia Venables is joint editor of this Newsletter.
Note from Delia. We will continue to cover virtual firms in this newsletter. If you are making the change to “virtual” yourself, or have any other experiences of virtual firms (good or bad) do please contact me.