Virtual law firms were becoming more commonplace before the global pandemic, thanks in part to younger lawyers moving into partnership positions and advances in technology. The shutdowns that came with the COVID-19 crises only accelerated the expansion of the virtual law firm model. Firms large and small have realized the numerous advantages of operating virtually, either becoming entirely virtual or only partially. As technology advances and tech-native lawyers enter the workforce, virtual legal practice will continue to grow. However, as every lawyer knows, complying with ethical rules and other requirements is just as crucial for virtual firms as traditional ones. Fortunately, virtual firms are well placed to gain an edge in this area by taking advantage of easily implemented resources such as secure cloud-based matter management systems and virtual legal support services.
Read on for a brief list of suggestions for operating your virtual law firm in a compliant, cutting-edge manner.
Accessibility – be available and set expectations
Lawyers must be easily accessible to your clients, as well as to opposing counsel, the courts, etc. Not only is this required in order to do business, secure new clients, etc., there are also ethical implications. However, this doesn’t mean you are absolutely required to adhere to the traditional 9 to 5 office model as a virtual law practice. Operating virtually can give you the flexibility to deal with family issues, set your schedule and even work from a different time zone. In fact, if you are working outside the traditional 9 to 5 model – especially when you do not have to be in court – this may even work to your advantage with personal injury and medical malpractice clients. If your clients are working a traditional 9 to 5 day or are dealing with medical treatments during the day, they may very well appreciate your availability outside regular business hours.
While for most lawyers, especially litigators and dealmakers, some overlap with regular business hours in your professional base jurisdiction will be required – either regularly or on occasion – the key is communicating your availability clearly to your clients. Set, and abide by expectations for:
- Timeframes in which your clients make unscheduled calls.
- Response times to emails and voicemails.
- Availability for video calls.
- When and where in-person conferences can take place.
Maintain records securely and in compliance with applicable rules
Security of your clients’ information is paramount not only for their trust but also for ethical reasons. This applies to both physical files and digital records. Keeping records secure while running a virtual firm is extremely important, especially if you are working from home, in coworking spaces, or working while traveling. Fortunately, ethical rules have evolved to allow law firms to take advantage of advances in technology, including cloud-based data storage and matter management systems.
Better yet, cybersecurity and technology have advanced rapidly over the last several years. Major cloud companies, such as Microsoft, invest tens of millions annually to maintain super-secure hosting capabilities and employ an army of cybersecurity experts to protect all the data hosted on their cloud. Furthermore, these clouds are also HIPAA/HITECH (perhaps the most stringent federal data security law) and ISO 270001 complaint, along with numerous other cyber and data security laws.
Why is this important? The leading matter management systems are built on major cloud providers like Microsoft. Meaning you get not only the security features built into the matter management system but also the underlying and highly robust security features of the cloud provider. Governments worldwide, including the US government, utilize Microsoft and other clouds to host highly sensitive data. If it’s secure enough for classified information, it’s secure enough for your firm.
Use a matter management system
All firms, both traditional and virtual, should be using some form of a matter management system. Even the smallest firms can benefit from the organization and efficiency they can bring. However, matter management systems are critical for a virtual firm, and really, virtual firms should be using cloud-based matter management systems.
When selecting a system, first – for ethical reasons – review their security features and the type of platform they’re hosted on. Make sure they have the proper security provisions in place. Second, look beyond your own needs and potential interactions with the system. The right matter management system can make your life easier by making other people’s lives easier. For example, client and vendor portals allow your clients, medical providers, experts, etc., to seamlessly communicate with your firm in a secure manner. Documents, messages, videos, and more can be uploaded directly from clients and vendors into your system and attached to the appropriate matter – all without you having to do anything. Your clients and vendors will also appreciate the ease of collaboration, plus you’ll save time and costs associated with sending things by mail or courier.
Going a step beyond, think of future needs. Perhaps you’ll have a large project in where you need temporary additional help. Maybe you will want to employ a team of remote paralegals to keep your virtual firm running around the clock. Certain matter management systems can allow for seamless integration with virtual legal support services without purchasing additional licenses for your virtual legal staffing needs.
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