Jumping from office locations, to coffee shops and back again is all part of the daily life of the virtual lawyer. Angela Priestley explores three who have made the low overhead model a mainstay, and are proving their worth in a tightening economy
Although the name might suggest it, the virtual lawyer is not confined to the parameters of cyberspace.
At least that's what three virtual lawyers told Lawyers Weekly this week. Stepping into the realm of virtual law is not about conducting all legal work online, nor is it a means to hide within the walls of a home office, avoiding all forms of human contact in a bid to undertake legal work as simply, and cost-effectively, as possible.
These virtual lawyers say they offer something much more flexible. They are individuals, or sometimes teams, who commit themselves to no office location. They can hop from a home office to a café and into the spare desk of an organisation and back to the confines of a car - or wherever their clients permit - through remote technologies.
In the current economic climate, the idea of the virtual lawyer makes perfect sense. Gone is the elaborate office, the marble reception area, the bells and whistles of a more traditional law firm that, in a recession, can look fiscally indulgent. And for organisations questioning the costs of in-house lawyers, the virtual lawyer can offer the chance to deploy legal expertise only as the need arises, instead of committing to a full-time salary.
"I got to the point where I had all this machinery and stuff that I thought was out of control," says Kay Lam-Beattie, founder of virtual firm Idealaw, on why she made the move to practice virtually.
"I said to my clients, 'I've got two options, either I set up a proper office and increase my fees to pay for it, or I can do a really cutdown version and convert our office to a virtual office' ... They said 'You know what? The virtual office sounds like a great idea'."
Virtual lawyers offer a concept to business that steps away from what is considered the traditional role of a lawyer. Virtual lawyers can act in the role of consultants; they can be flexible in their approach, offer accessibility, and break down geographical boundaries.
Mark Toohey, founder of virtual firm Adroit Lawyers, says it was noting a gap in the market for a "contractor" style of general counsel that prompted him to establish his new form of business nine months ago.
With a background in television, Toohey picked up on a need for IT start-ups to obtain an in-house style of legal advice, when such ventures might not be progressed enough, or have the work, to justify a full-time lawyer.
"They can't afford the fees of some of the larger practices on a consistent basis," he says.
"They just need someone to come in a few hours a week - or maybe a few hours a month - just to keep oiling the machinery, to provide someone they can go to when there is a problem."
Both Toohey and Lam-Beattie agree that the current market downturn is providing a pick-up in business. Clients are more cost-conscious now, and the ability to access a resource if and only when the need arises is particularly appealing.
Flexibility is key, and not just in terms of location. Virtual lawyers do not even appear to commit to a regular billing method. Instead, billing is determined by individual clients who might prefer time-billing, a fixed-fee or to place their "legal consultant" on a retainer.
In presenting themselves to organisations seeking legal assistance, virtual lawyers usually offer a strong background in in-house and general counsel positions.
Toohey says that despite only recently identifying himself as a virtual lawyer, his 10 years of in-house experience has allowed him to offer a service capable of dealing with almost all matters of legal problems that can arise within an organisation.
Another with considerable in-house experience, Jeremy Szwider has established a virtual practice called Bespoke Law in a bid to offer a "hybrid" service that morphs private practice and in-house work.
Szwider says the business idea arose from lessons learnt working with general counsel in London and Europe, and even remotely in Australia.
"I came back to Australia thinking that the Australian legal industry here is still quite outdated," he says. "There is still an antiquated model of only, or predominantly, using and relying on external and private practice lawyers. It's time to move on and think beyond the circle."
Szwider adds that by losing the office, costs are kept low, a particularly attractive prospect in the current market. But, he says, the move also allows him to add a more personal touch, especially a willingness to work within client offices if required.
"I act for clients as if I am an employee ... That's where I get this hybrid model. I sit in their offices if they want me to. I'm not fixated on a location, I can rotate and fees and billing can be adjusted accordingly.
"I view my practice as being run from my BlackBerry, my office, my teleconference facility, or my client's office," says Szwider. "All I need is a BlackBerry, and with a personal touch, you can achieve anything. You don't need to be sitting in a large building with a fancy boardroom."
Indeed, the fancy boardroom could do more harm than good in the current economic climate, where clients might be wary of a lawyer, or law firm, that seems too ostentatious.
Perhaps the virtual lawyer will change a common stigma attached to the legal industry in terms of cost, and prove that legal services can actually be affordable.
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