Virtual solutions for your law office
A criminal defence lawyer offers his take on how virtual office solutions can add flexibility, efficiency and savings to a law practice.
By David Anber
All law firms want to foster flexibility, improve efficiency and save money. For some practitioners, particularly the small firms or recent calls going solo, the inability to attain these objectives makes it difficult to stay in business.
In my view, that term “virtual law office” more accurately refers to a law office which is dedicated to the use of some or many virtual office solutions. Through the use of these solutions, flexibility, efficiency and savings become more easily attainable.
The idea of virtual office solutions is not new in the legal world. Individual lawyers sharing a floor of an office building or even multiple firms have engaged in the practice of sharing a receptionist. Often, the shared receptionist will answer the phone differently depending on how it rings, giving the impression that each lawyer has his or her own personal receptionist.
“A ‘virtual’ law office is one that uses virtual office solutions of one form or another. Through the use of these solutions, flexibility, efficiency and savings become more easily attainable.”
Similarly, if you look through the Ontario Reports, you can see some lawyers who advertise themselves as "hired guns" of the research world. Can't afford to have a junior associate looking up reams of case law? Contract it out on a pay-as-you-go basis.
The rise of the virtual law office is largely related to booms in technology during the past 15 years. Prior to that period, nobody used the Internet, few had cell phones, and most of us who used computers were running Windows 3.1.
Fifteen years ago, it would be unlikely that a lawyer like myself, would be willing or able to go solo. Between rent, a receptionist, a photocopier, fax machine and costly utilities (just to name a few) I would probably quickly find myself running out of time, money or both. The impact of expenses would be particularly pronounced early on when a new lawyer only has a few clients; the lawyer might only have a paying client sitting across his desk 1 or 2 hours a day, but he or she is still paying for the office space 24 hours a day.
When I started, accessing office space on an hourly basis was a useful way of saving money. As I grew into a permanent office space, having receptionist services sure beat paying someone $1000 to $2000 a month to answer phones. Aside from the cost savings, it's also a great time saver to have someone answering the phone and taking messages.
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Returning to the subject of technology there are a number of virtual solutions which can benefit the small practice:
- Virtual Faxing: For a small monthly fee you can send and receive faxes online or through e-mail. Aside from the time saved by being able to send and receive faxes anywhere with an Internet connection, the user can decide what faxes are worth printing which saves ink, toner and paper.
- Log-in Software: When I go to criminal court, I often see situations where, for whatever reason, a certain document allowing the lawyer to appear in lieu of the client is missing. Established firms may have the luxury of calling the office and having a clerk or articling student rush over with a copy. Those who don't have that luxury either must run back themselves or risk getting a bench warrant. With log-in software, a person can use any computer (i.e. at the law library) and log into their home or office computer as though they were sitting right in front of it and print whatever documents are needed. Coupled with a good practice of scanning important documents, (or saving those virtual faxes) you'll never be without the documents you need.
- Syncing software: In a fast-paced environment a lawyer may be working on a document at home, at the office, on their smart phone, at the law library etc. Various software allows designated files or folders to be kept current. I personally use two different software, one which - in real time - keeps certain files sync'd on my home and office computer and another one which syncs those files to my smart phone on a daily basis. So when I'm in court and a prosecutor challenges me on the date I sent their office correspondence, I reach into my pocket, and within 5-10 seconds I can dial up the answer.
As mentioned at the outset, I believe that the term "virtual law office" is a misnomer. Rather, various virtual office solutions can benefit a variety of firms large and small. The degree to which such solutions are used will depend on the firm and, if used where a need exists, will almost always result in improved flexibility, efficiency and savings.
David Anber is a criminal defence lawyer in Ottawa. He can be reached at: ask@DavidAnber.com