The real world of virtual law firms

Pam Jefcoat and the seven other lawyers in her BC firm have regular meetings, work on documents together, have annual retreats and gather for summer and Christmas parties.

“We practise just like any small firm would practise,” said Jefcoat, “it’s just that we don’t have an office.” 

  valkyrie law group
  The lawyers at Valkyrie Law Group, left to right: Sonia Sahota, Gwendoline Allison, Andrea Frisby, Rina Thakar, Lynn Khng, Holman Wang, Sandra Carter and Pamela Jefcoat.
   

Valkyrie Law Group is entirely virtual. There is no downtown Vancouver office with plush furniture and glamorous art in the reception. There are no assistants, no paralegals, no corporate services department and no law library.

“We joke that we have eight offices in the lower mainland to serve you better,” said Jefcoat with a broad smile on her face. But the reality is that those eight offices are not for clients. Each lawyer works from home.

Valkyrie Law is part of a growing national and global trend. In 2009 the Canadian Bar Association estimated lawyers in nearly every province have embraced the virtual office idea.

When Jefcoat and two of her current partners founded their firm in March 2009, the three didn’t research virtual law offices. At the time they were practising at a large downtown Vancouver firm.

“The virtual model was primarily driven by the economics of it and the desire for autonomy and flexibility — all of us wanted to work from home,” said Jefcoat. “When we were deciding how we wanted to set up, we considered what would be the most cost effective for clients. This was particularly important for us because we act for municipalities and, of course, it’s taxpayers’ dollars.”

Valkyrie limits its practice to municipal and First Nations law. Jefcoat said her practice style didn’t change when she founded the firm.

“I already used the phone and email all the time. It’s just that now I don’t commute and do committee meetings every night. Our clients very rarely came into Vancouver to see us at the office so it was almost like we were already practising that way. We act for clients all over the province. They’re used to us travelling to see them.”

Even though the way she interacted with her clients remained largely the same, other aspects of her practice changed significantly. “I’m making more than I would have at the larger firm and working less.” At the downtown firm where she gave up being a partner, Jefcoat regularly worked 10 hour days and weekends. She now works about 40 hours a week, including doing her own non-billable administrative work.

Her client base has also doubled since Valkyrie’s inception a year and a half ago. “Our clients love it,” said Jefcoat. “First of all they love it because one of the advantages of no overhead is that we were able to reduce our rates by about 20 percent.”

“There’s an environmental aspect to it as well,” added Jefcoat. “Local governments are in a position where they’re encouraged to reduce their environmental foot print. We don’t commute. We don’t have an office, and so our impact on the environment is less, and I think that’s something that local governments appreciate.”

But despite a long list of positives, Jefcoat warns this type of practice may not work for everyone.

“I would temper the fact that you do get the flexibility and you are at home with the fact that you have to be fairly disciplined to make it work. Some may find it isolating not being in an office environment. So it may not be a model in which everyone would want to practise, and especially at the very early stages, as training is a bit of a different issue, as well.”

There are several other crucial considerations for lawyers considering a virtual law office, according to lawyer Barbara Buchanan, a Practice Advisor at the Law Society of BC.

“Some lawyers are so keen on the technology and reducing overhead by having a ‘virtual law firm’ that they are not putting their minds to the professional responsibility issues regarding confidentiality, conflicts, client identification and verification, determining mental capacity of the client to instruct, undue influence over the client and so on.”

Depending on the firm and type of practice, the virtual law office may not lend itself to good practice. “Just because technology makes things easy to set up doesn’t mean it’s easy to properly discharge your obligations to your clients,” said Buchanan.

email exchangeLawyers considering this model need to think through the advantages and disadvantages and have client security and service as a paramount consideration. “In terms of confidentiality, if clients are logging onto the firm’s website to exchange information then lawyers need to consider the site’s security, among other things,” advised Buchanan. “They need to protect it from hackers and fraudsters. Ideally their server should be in their office and, if not, they need a major provider with an air tight confidentiality agreement — not just a server in their garage. If your server is an American one there is a significant risk to the security of your clients’ information, because the US government could invoke the USA PATRIOT Act.”

In addition, Buchanan reminds lawyers that client identification and verification rules need to be considered. “Is the person emailing you really who they say they are? Verification of identity can’t be done without meeting with the client in person.” (See Law Society Rules 3-91 to 3-102.) “There are a number of risks to consider. So as you can see, it’s not as easy as it sounds to conduct your practice properly entirely over the computer,” advised Buchanan.

Jefcoat said that she and her partners at Valkyrie considered that practising law in a non-traditional way doesn’t negate lawyers’ obligations to consider traditional issues. She said the three founding partners began by taking the Law Society’s small firm course and scouring the Rules.

“We did all of our due diligence. All of that stuff that is just done for you miraculously by virtue of being in a large firm, we had to figure out, such as, what are our insurance requirements, requirements for document storage, limitation periods? Anyone considering this needs to do their homework,” Jefcoat cautioned.

Even with the additional considerations of practising virtually, Jefcoat’s firm has attracted more lawyers. They’ve grown from three to eight. The firm has an all-equity partner model. They share the profits and loss based on a proportional points system they’ve created for each other. One of the partners to join this year is Andrea Frisby.

She left the same large downtown firm that Jefcoat did. “I like this kind of brighter colour work,” said Frisby. “You’re closer to the front line and that’s exciting. I like getting my fingers into stuff that at the big firm I would have been decades away from getting to touch.”

She experienced additional immediate benefits. “Personally, I’m saving three hours a day commuting, so I can work more hours a day and be less fatigued.”

Both Frisby and Jefcoat have young children. While they say their big firm lifestyles allowed them to maintain their families as priorities, both believe there have been important advantages to working from home.

“I do enjoy being more a part of her life than I was when I was working downtown,” said Jefcoat of her four-year-old daughter. “You’re not commuting, so you save so much time after work and before work. You can have breakfast together. You’re home for dinner. There’s that flexibility there and a sense of security when your child knows you’re home. That wasn’t a motivating factor when I left, but it’s certainly been a wonderful byproduct of the system that we’ve chosen.”

Frisby said, for the first time ever, she was able to take her nine-year-old daughter to the first day of school. While Frisby enjoys that flexibility, there are other aspects of her new practice that equally ­excite her.

“We are on the leading edge of business. I think this kind of law practice and this model is where law is going. I think the big firm and big offices is where it’s been. We are equally serious about our brand and professionalism.”

“This is a recession model in a way,” said Frisby. “You’re cutting costs for the client and the big footprint of staff and overhead. You’re cut to the bone and it makes you more dynamic. I think this kind of service is going to gain momentum. A lot of people in this generation are really comfortable with conferencing on-line and other technology.”

Jefcoat agrees. “It’s an easier practice for the younger generation to adapt to because we’re already tech-savvy. The bulk of us are in our 30s and 40s and most of us had laptops in law school to type our notes in class. The younger generation of lawyers tends not to use assistants as much. We don’t dictate and we draft directly onto the computer.”

Nevertheless, Jefcoat believes the big firm will always have its place. “I did start in a big firm and you learn a lot by just being among so many lawyers.” Frisby also believes her big firm training was invaluable. Further, she believes Jefcoat and the other two Valkyrie founders are “pioneers.”

Jefcoat responded with a laugh. “I would have never called myself that. Maybe a little bit in terms of this style of ­practice. ”

Jefcoat said that aspect of forging new ground made the decision to go virtual difficult. “We had a lot of sleepless nights. We didn’t have anyone we could talk to who was doing it and could give us the pros and cons. I’d been happy at my firm for 10 years, and leaving something where you’re not discontent is difficult. You’re leaving a complete known for an unknown. But it was one of those opportunities in life that I thought I’d kick myself if I didn’t try it.”

And she believes many more will try it. Still, Jefcoat stops short of seeing virtual law offices as the widespread future of law.

“I’m not sure that it translates to everybody’s practice, depending on the nature and type of work that you’re doing and how reliant you are on the resources of a big firm,” Jefcoat said. “The virtual firm blends well with our practice, because the type of practice we have is largely opinion, document review or contracts. It’s less transactional. We’re very fortunate that we don’t need bricks and mortar for our practice. That probably won’t work for everyone.”