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The Virtual Law Firm


virtual law firm

I just stumbled across an interesting article called “Building a Virtual Law Firm” by Joseph Kashi, an attorney in Alaska.  His article was written six years ago, but it highlights some trends that have only gained speed since then.

Kashi first points out that there is nothing new about “virtual” law relationships; most attorneys regularly associate with, and work closely with, local counsel in other states as the need arises. They collaborate with other attorneys who have expertise in specialized areas.  We use the services of professional and paraprofessional staff who either telecommute or otherwise work off-premises. Attorneys are generally comfortable working with investigators, court reporters, and expert witnesses whom we may not physically meet very often, if at all.

Once we have recognized that these “virtual” arrangements are not a radical departure from our previous ways of practice, we can begin to understand how internet technologies will accelerate this process and create new opportunities.  As Kashi puts it:

Mainstream use of Internet-based legal practice systems will force law firms to change into radically different, flexible practice associations that respond more quickly to market and technological changes. Future law firms will likely adopt a more flexible and democratic horizontal structure that facilitates the quick and efficient flow of critical information, something that’s critical to the quick parry and thrust of almost any law practice. Further, almost every other industry has found that flexible business structures also lend themselves to better profit margins.

Technology has leveled the playing field.  Before computers, law firms depended on large numbers of associates and paralegals to manually collect and process the vast amount of information required by any significant litigation or transaction. This required the addition of intermediate layers to supervise employees and to control the quality of the paperwork as it gradually flowed to the ultimate users.  These additional layers, however, only slows the flow of information to the lawyers who ultimately use it. Too many intermediate lawyers not only reduce the firm’s productivity and responsiveness but also increase overhead and costs, which are usually passed on to the client in one form or another.

By contrast, a virtual law firm will not need to carry the salaries of regular employees, or the costs of fancy downtown offices in which to house them.  Instead, it will rely upon trusted contract professionals and paraprofessionals specially chosen for particular projects.  Clients will no longer be expected to bear the cost of training associates or bring paralegals up to speed on industry specifics.  This flatter structure will lead to greater speed and flexibility in meeting client needs.  Nor will clients be paying for office space filled with filing cabinets and “war rooms”; today, data can be stored digitally for almost nothing, and layers can collaborate virtually via the internet.  These new technologies greatly reduce overhead costs, and therefore, fees billed to the client.

Professionals as diverse as radiologists and university educators are developing new “virtual” models; law firms need to move in that direction as well.

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