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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

SJ Interview: Delia Venables

SJ Interview: Delia Venables


The pioneering IT consultant explains the concept of a virtual law firm, and how to run one

What is a virtual law firm?

The basic concept is that people should be able to work at home and to a large extent, in their own time. They should be able to decide how much they want to work and they should be able to vary that amount if they need to.

There has to be an admin centre where money is handled, accounts are kept, phones are answered, files are monitored, money laundering and conflict checks made, professional indemnity insurance provided, and so on. This can be either at the principal solicitor's home or in a special location, but it will be a small location and it could be anywhere. The solicitors will not be working at that admin centre '“ they will either be visiting clients or working at home.

In some cases, the type of work makes a virtue of being 'anywhere', eg, international work like international divorce. In others, the selling point is the knowledge that the solicitor is modern and technically adept '“ this is useful in IT law, media law, e-commerce and so on. The methods of sharing fees vary between the firms - in some cases, solicitors are employed by the firm and in other cases, they are self-employed contractors (but still covered by the firm's insurance).

Who else, aside from solicitors, is involved in the running of a virtual firm?

The systems and software side of the firm is handled by software that can be accessed remotely; in some cases, the software is actually run as an outsourced service.

The secretarial side is handled either by the solicitor being capable of typing and preparing documents or using an outsourced secretarial service.

The library side is handled by online legal services such as Lawtel, WestlawUK, LexisNexis Butterworths and so on.

Marketing the firm's services is largely handled via the firms' websites; this is an important part of the overall concept.In some cases, VoIP phone systems are used to keep everyone in touch, but in any case, there are several ways to set up phone systems where the client just rings a number but the actual connection is 'passed over' to someone working in a different location.

It seems as if several of these new internet-based technologies have suddenly (or perhaps progressively) made the concept of the virtual law firm a reality.

What are the advantages of conducting business this way?

According to one virtual law firm (Lawyers Direct) which started in 2002, they have had 2,500 applications to join the firm, so there must be a large unmet desire for independent working!

If managed successfully, I think the concept of the virtual law firm gives the solicitor many of the benefits of being self-employed (such as the ability to be a bit of an entrepreneur and/or the ability to choose their own work rate) as well as many of the benefits of being part of a team '“ that is, shared resources, shared knowledge, social contact.

Don't clients still prefer to deal with a solicitor face to face?

Obviously, many people do still prefer to meet face to face. However, many younger clients are happy to work without going to a 'stuffy' office and having to dress respectably '“ or to take time off work. They like the flexibility too '“ and they certainly like the lower fees.

In the case of commercial work, the commercial clients probably need the reassurance of knowing that the solicitor has worked for previous years with big firms.

How do you feel that law firms are embracing the use of IT, such as case management systems and email bulletins to enhance their business?

I think it continues to be a very mixed bag. Some firms are keen to use modern technology; others only do it when they absolutely have no alternative. Some of the less technically minded firms still give an excellent service though '“ they actually engage their brains rather than just resorting to a flow chart. Overall, I think that most firms are moving forward with IT, just not in an entirely predictable way.

Do you think firms need to produce slicker websites and business models to compete with the likes of Tesco and the AA?

That is an interesting question. I think that Tesco and similar large corporate organisations will 'win' when it comes to work that can be provided in a relatively standard way and where large scale technology can deliver the services cheaper. A wonderful website is not going to get over the problem that Tesco can probably do a standard job cheaper. Solicitors probably need to think hard about making more of their special selling points that are not 'just' producing documents, but which require creative thought and a personal approach.

Andrew Towler set the questions