Virtual Law Offices Offer Flexibility, Ability to Draw Talent

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By Tera Brostoff

While other attorneys are still battling traffic or packed into subway cars, a Delaware lawyer walks 10 feet to his home office and signs into work. Despite the fact that he’d have to cross state lines twice to get to the physical office of his law firm, he has an enviable commute. He’s an attorney at Redgrave LLP, a hybrid virtual law firm that specializes in eDiscovery.

With more and more employees working remotely, it’s not surprising that the virtual law office is gaining in popularity. The virtual law office allows attorneys to represent clients across the country, without leaving their families or home cities. Virtual law firms can also hire and retain talent that geography might otherwise prevent them from attracting.

A virtual law firm is a form of practice, often focused on a specialty, which is staffed by attorneys, technologists and advisors who live all over the country. The model is especially appealing to eDiscovery practitioners, who often handle data and online evidence and are generally well-versed in the use of the cloud-based technology that is becoming increasingly more popular and necessary in data-heavy litigation.

A virtual law firm can be set up completely online and requires no brick and mortar presence. Attorneys and employees meet—either over the phone, online, or in person—when needed or convenient.

Some virtual law firms follow a hybrid model, which means a firm has a brick and mortar office in one location, but not all of its staff and attorneys live there or even near by.

A virtual law practice seems well-suited to a technologically sophisticated world, but it also presents unique challenges. But attorneys who are interested in starting or joining a virtual law office need to be particularly mindful of local ethics and professional rules and of the need to retain the “human touch” that clients demand.

Virtual Office Pros

Jonathan Redgrave is partner at Redgrave LLP, a hybrid virtual firm that focuses on eDiscovery and “addressing the legal challenges that arise at the intersection of the law and technology.” He spoke with Bloomberg BNA about the pros and cons of the virtual law firm model.

One of the foremost benefits of the virtual model is the opportunity to stock the firm with the best of the best in terms of attorneys, advisors and professionals. Eliminating geographic hiring barriers expands the talent pool exponentially, Redgrave said.

Redgrave’s firm includes information scientists, software engineers and other professionals with depth in technology knowledge. This type of expertise is important to the practice.

“Our senior advisors are the ones who really understand the ‘tech talk,’” he said.

These advisors provide guidance on a range of topics, from the litigation hold features of large data structures, the extraction of data, or the investigation of IT personnel and individuals suspected of spoliation.

The advisors “are invaluable and set us apart from other firms,” Redgrave said.

Redgrave’s firm also acts an adjunct in cases from other firms.

“What we have found in the practice is that there’s just a lot of people who don’t get this topic and should associate themselves with someone who understands eDiscovery,” he said. “We aren’t on the merits in a case, but we do handle the eDiscovery issues.”

It makes a ‘great marriage’ for the client, Redgrave explained, noting that the client can hire Redgrave LLP as the national eDiscovery counsel rather than pay several merit firms.

Redgrave predicts the model will appeal to more and more attorneys, especially in the millennial set.

“There is an increasingly mobile work force out there and you can use an on-demand office space which is more economical than a long-term commitment to space,” Redgrave said

The model also allows for greater flexibility and business growth opportunities.

James Daley joined a virtual law firm devoted to eDiscovery in 2005, where Redgrave also originally practiced. Daley is now senior counsel at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, where he focuses on eDiscovery and information governance.

All of the Redgrave, Daley, Ragan & Wagner partners were involved with The Sedona Conference, whose mission is in part to create principles and guidelines that govern the practice of eDiscovery in the United States.

“We were trying to get ahead of the curve and decided there was definitely a need for a firm that would have its main mission be full-time devotion to these types of issues,” Daley told Bloomberg BNA. “The model worked quite well.”

The partners at the firm were located across the country, with a brick and mortar office in Minneapolis.

The Human Touch

The virtual nature of the firm can have drawbacks too, most notably in the area of the human touch between both clients and colleagues. Redgrave is a big believer in that, but with the virtual/hybrid model, attorneys may go awhile without physically shaking hands with a client—or one another.

“We spend time and money to have firm meetings every year,” he said. “The biggest challenge is letting our clients know that even when someone isn’t physically there, they are still working hard for you.”

This distance between attorneys and clients means that employees can be close to their homes and families.

“Our pain in trying to manage remotely is well worth it to balance the flexibility our employees get,” Redgrave said.

Daley said it can be hard to maintain cohesiveness with employees scattered across the country. His firm had fairly frequent mini-retreats where the attorneys could meet in one location, usually centered around one or more partners’ speaking engagements at lectures or conferences.

State Bar Weighs In

There are legal pitfalls to be avoided as well. State bars are now considering the consequences and legal implications of the virtual firm model.

Last year the Washington State Bar Association released advisory opinion 201601, which addresses the ethical practices of the virtual law office.

The opinion acknowledges that costs associated with physical office space and the advances in the reliability of online resources and cloud computing have promoted the growth of virtual law office.

“Although this modern business model may appear radically different from the traditional brick and mortar law office model, the underlying principles of an ethical law practice remain the same,” the opinion says. “The core duties of diligence, loyalty, and confidentiality apply whether the office is virtual or physical.”

New Directions

Daley explained that virtual firms are more often than not boutique, and rely on a specific legal need to thrive. Due to shifts in the legal market, he left the virtual firm in 2015.

“Over the 10-year period I was with virtual firms, more big firms learned how to do eDiscovery, and so there was more distributed expertise,” he explained. “Over time, there’s an ebb and flow as to whether large corporations want to go with a boutique or a white-shoe firm.”

But these sorts of challenges don’t prevent virtual firms from having a promising future. As Redgrave said, they could be quite popular with the millennial lawyer generation, who both want the workplace flexibility the model affords and may have a better grasp on the type of issues that these firms can handle.

Daley said the virtual firm model would do well in the area of data security and data protection, where the expertise is not yet well-formed.

“In any area, where there is a new tidal wave or tsunami of legal consequences and there are events of big change, there’s an opportunity for virtual firms to take of,” he said.

He highlighted the new data privacy laws that have gone into effect overseas in Europe.

“In the next 10 years, there will be a need for trusted advisers who understand the technology behind data security and who understand the legal ramifications associated with data security,” Daley said. “These people aren’t easy to find and they aren’t as prevalent in big firms.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tera Brostoff in Washington at tbrostoff@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Carol Eoannou at ceoannou@bna.com; Ethan Bowers at sbowers@bna.com

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