The terms “Virtual Law Practice” and “Virtual Law Office” are loaded ones, for the uninitiated, as well as for the too-initiated. As with any phrases that might in some way be related to technology in a society like ours, where technological advances outpace our language, there is bound to be a gulf of definition: for those who are unfamiliar with the general advance of iLife© and all things Web, a virtual law office might be one that uses email versus the good ol’, reliable United States Postal Service, or Pony Express; for those who have become all-too-familiar with the creep of the always-on internet revolution, and who may have difficulty powering down their blackberries during dinner, the apogee of a virtual law office is a secure, web-based business platform that will allow the attorney to run an entire law practice from the comfort of a laptop and/or smartphone, such that your working from home is only a dream away. And, you can wear your pajamas, too. As long as you remember to turn on your webcam only when you want it on. Then it’s pajama bottoms teamed with the buttondown shirt and suitjacket.

We hope to explore the virtual law office as business model in future blog posts. (If I have overwhet your appetite to the point of impatience, feel free, in the meantime, to check out Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC, and one of its champion users, Kimbro Legal Services–principal Stephanie Kimbro was presented the 2009 James I. Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering at the ABA’s recently completed TECHSHOW–, both of North Carolina, and about the online world.) In addition, we will continue to explore the uses of technologies that will make your practice life more efficient, such that you will be able to come to enjoy the more time that you will have to spend in your real life. This new matter will likely contemplate the question of partnering with a virtual legal assistant. So, let’s tentatively call this a three-part series in the making, for those of you keeping score at home.

For this first part, then, we will address the pros and cons of the virtual office as an adjunct to the home office: a physical office used for meetings, rather than a series of virtual tools combined to create a web-based business platform of some degree.

In this brand-new, as-yet-unnamed depression, starting solos and small firms, and even settled operations, have seen their profits slip. People are making difficult choices, and cutting expenses. Legal expenses, in certain cases, are an easy cut for the majority of consumers. Faced with reduced intake, it becomes very difficult for these smaller legal shops to justify the costs of a full office rental. So, these solos and principals of small firms must take after their clients, and must themselves take a hard look at alternatives, in order to see whether a savings can be made on the major cost of rent and ancillary expenses, without sacrificing overmuch in efficiency, service and image. Options include the office share, working from home, the virtual office, or some type of hybrid model. The selection of a virtual office space is, in essence, the choice to create a hybrid physical practice space. At the most basic level, the use of a virtual office allows you to meet with clients, while only paying for the actual meeting time you use. Almost all virtual office services provide package deals, as well, whereby you can pay for office meeting space, and certain accoutrements, including secretarial and phone services. These add-ons can make your virtual office much like a “real” office. Of course, the more use you make of the service, the more you pay. However, the coupling of a virtual office with a home office, or an office share, may represent a significant saving for solo and small attorneys seeking to return dimes for nickels. There are several virtual office situations available in and around Boston. The massive HQ/Regus conglomerate is something of a Standard Oil in the world of virtual office space providers; but, there is no monopoly here: there are other options. A Google search for “virtual office Boston” yields, at this writing, something on the order of 400,000 results.

The choice to adopt a virtual office is not, of course, cut and dry. As indicated by my now-fading title, there are pros, and there are cons. The specific advantages to a virtual office arrangement are several. There is the obvious cost saving. If you meet with clients rarely, or most often at court, the virtual office can be a perfect solution for cutting your overhead. There is the matter of separation, and privacy, as well. If you have a criminal practice, or otherwise can’t, or choose not to, use your home for a meeting space, you can derive some separation between your professional and personal lives by using your virtual office as your official client meeting space. Another upside is flexibility. In many cases, virtual office providers will negotiate with you, such that you can increase the value of preordained packages by getting them to drop some add-ins onto the standard package. (On a sidenote, you should team comparison shopping with negotiation at every opportunity, especially in an economy like this, in which consumers have much more control in price settling than in boom times.) The package selected will usually include some form of support or administrative staff. In addition to providing you space, staff and certain other benefits, like phone, messaging and mail services, the virtual office will likely provide a prestigious address–one that you would not likely be able to afford full-time. Your clients (as well as other firms) may assume the seriousness of your entity.

The virtual office lifestyle, however, is not all wine and roses; and, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the money you save on office space will soon be applied to the car payment on your sweet Delorean. If you have a meeting-intensive practice, the virtual office is likely not for you. Your package will set a limit on meeting hours for the month; if you exceed your monthly hours, surcharges are applied, much in the same way that cellphone companies charge for overages. In this way, your overrunning cup may force you to pay as much, if not more, than you would for a full-time office rental. Of course, there is the possibility that your additional meeting time means additional client moneys coming in; but, if you are using your virtual office so much that you end up paying near to a monthly full office rental, it is time to thinking about renting a for real office. Another thing to keep in mind is that you are not likely to retain the professional image of your virtual office at all times. The address, staff and space may allow you to appear the Ropes & Gray of the small set at first blush, but clients and other attorneys can and will figure out that your main office is someplace else. Don’t leverage your psuedo-prestige too far afield; and, be honest, if asked. Don’t,
either, forget the geographic limitations of your client base. If your clients are mostly from the suburbs, don’t assume that they’ll want to drive into Boston and pay $30 in parking for the privilege of meeting with you at your swank digs. If your clients get tired of the trek, it may end up being you and the potted plant. Consider, also, that, in most cases, you will be receiving your calls at and through your virtual office; but, the virtual office provider will own your phone number. As your practice grows, your phone number becomes another asset. Lose your phone number, and you could lose some of your clients with it. The maintenance of a virtual office may also entail a delay in receipt of your mail. If you can’t get in to check your mail regularly, you can have it forwarded it to you (for an additional fee); but, this usually means a 2- to 3-day delay in receipt. This can be an extreme disadvantage for litigation or deadline-intensive practices. Although you can be provided specific virtual office staff service (again, for an additional fee), the staff is not invested in your practice, but is involved over several practices. Chances for mishandling of assigned duties, then, increases. Your oversight is applied; but, your say is not final. Hiring, discipline and firing remain the sole and exclusive realm of the virtual office company you are using. Moreover, there’s no way to bring in your own secretary or paralegal to assist: there’s just not enough space. Trying is like working out of the Michael Scott Paper Company basement office. Finally, there can be issues of availability for space, if you are not scheduling your meetings several days in advance. Sometimes, scheduling a meeting for the next day is impossible, because there is just not space available.

And, while virtual offices do have the obvious benefits that derive from cost savings, flexibility and assumed prestige, there are substantial benefits to practicing within an established office, or in setting up an office share, where you can establish long-term relationships with other attorneys and other professionals. Over time, these relationships result in both referrals and sources of counsel for the multitude of issues that arise in representing clients. It can be well worth the extra money to choose the established office route, if you are still in the process of developing a client base. Office sharing arrangements may be cheaply had, as well. Again, if you negotiate and price shop, you may find attractive deals, with unique add-ins of their own, e.g.–use of copy machines, shared secretarial time, etc.

Postscript, Apropos of Something. I like to end on etc. If you are reading this on its published date of Friday, consider relaxing this weekend with some Warren Zevon. No, I don’t not work for the estate of Warren Zevon (although, if they are looking for a lawyer, I might be listening); however, I can’t recommend enough the generally undiscovered genius of Mr. Zevon. If you only know Zevon from “Werewolves of London,” it’s time to expand the catalogue. My recommendation would be to buy (on iTunes–decrease your carbon footprint and save money) what is, in my opinion, the finest album of an impressive catalogue, “Life’ll Kill Ya.” Sounds cheesy, I know; but, it’s quite the opposite. Zevon’s lyrics are incisive and pointed. He is one of the most intelligent songwriters I have ever listened to; and, he can drop a mean hook, to boot. “I Was in the House When the House Burned Down”, “Porcelain Monkey”, “I’ll Slow You Down” and “Back in the High Life Again”, among others, are five star options. If you like what you hear, feel free to email me for more Zevon suggestions. I dabble in things aside from practice management issues; but, this’ll improve your work-life balance anyway. If you become a fan, consider signing this petition for Warren’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he should be enshrined already.