Solicitors who have opted to run a practice without an office explain what it takes, and who it might suit

Redundant? Taking a parenting break? Or just fancy working for yourself without the hassle of running an office? These are only some of the scenarios where it is quite often said nowadays that with little more than a laptop, you can go into practice on your own account and try to carve out a corner of the market for yourself.

But is operating in a “virtual” environment really that simple, or are there hidden dangers? What has been the experience of those who have struck out in this direction?

This is an area where the profession in England & Wales – or at least the pioneers who have set out on this road – have advanced rather further than Scottish lawyers. Although a recent estimate put the number of firms operating in this way at little more than 20, some are substantial businesses: one, Keystone Law, already boasts 85 “consultants” – the term commonly adopted for those who work from their own base but in a computer-centred business association.

In Scotland, by contrast, the few who have so far chosen to operate in this way mostly operate solo, or at least as sole principals. This makes even choosing an umbrella term for them tricky – “dispersed law firm”, as preferred by one such English firm, hardly seems appropriate; “virtual law firm” is adopted by some, though it has connotations of a Second Life-type existence; nor does “virtual office” quite fit the bill where the object is to practise without an office at all. We’ll adopt “virtual practice” for present purposes.

What is more important is to distinguish such firms from practices that are in the vanguard when it comes to technology but still operate from an office setting. They too are part of the future (and as will be seen, the virtual practice is less well equipped to handle some kinds of work); but there are those who want to operate more flexibly still.

The motives

“Technology enables delivery of service on a personal, quick and cost effective basis, without the need for a glitzy office and a squad of employees”, says Iain Taylor of Kirkcaldy, whose practice, e-corporate, is approaching its third birthday. It was part of Taylor’s game plan to go it alone: “because I don’t spend time on staff or partner etc issues, I have more time available to spend on clients in a non-chargeable way”.

For Taylor, the additional flexibility in his life that his move has brought is an incidental benefit. For Mark Harrison of e-Litigate in Edinburgh it was a principal driver after years spent working conventional hours: “I longed for some flexibility in how, where and when I worked.”

 As someone who always took a keen interest in IT, he adds: “The original plan was to start on my own and see how it went. The challenge was to do all the work on my own with no support staff.” Both had a background in practice with conventional firms; while Taylor is content to remain operating solo, Harrison has ambitions to expand into a consultancy network – though the demands of his practice have delayed his ability to carry forward the necessary admin.

So you have to be committed, and self disciplined, and as is emphasised by Professor Stewart Brymer, a recent addition to the ranks, “This might not be suitable for everyone.” His own motive, leaving a 30-strong partnership in Tayside firm Thorntons to practise alone, was a combination of wanting to be more involved with clients’ business affairs and a personal desire for a wider horizon than his native Dundee, where he had always practised.

Brymer operates on an advisory rather than a transactional basis, something he has in common with The Law Agency in Aberdeen, and its principal Alex Green. For both, as with Taylor and Harrison, the appeal to clients is that they are seen to be highly service-focused, with emphasis placed on client relationships. All cite the attractions to clients – generally IT-literate business people – of being seen to operate from a minimal cost base.

“I think my clients appreciate the fact that I am very competitive price wise”, says Green. “They know that because I run a virtual law firm, they are really only paying for my expertise and knowledge. I have minimal overheads. I continue to provide the same excellent service at a fraction of the price. They are not interested in whether I have expensive offices.”

Business sense

Consultant Malcolm Mackay has practised in most permutations of legal business and currently operates both in an international context in Law at Work and as an independent adviser. While holding out the potential of virtual practice for those looking for an opening, he agrees that it takes a particular personality type to be quite so self reliant – though one commonly found in the profession, given the number of sole principals.

Mackay suggests that for someone “with a few clients, a bit of imagination and some very basic (but robust) technology” the concept has potential, and it could be a way for a group of sole practitioners to share costs and expertise while getting the buildings overhead out of the equation. He accepts however that it is vital “that you have enough experience to run a business as well as do the legal work”.

“A good bank of contacts is required, coupled with an attention to detail and a keen eye on risk management issues”, Brymer advises. “It is essential that standards are maintained and that corners are not cut simply because the business model is not what one would regard as being ‘traditional’. It is also easy to become demoralised when IT does not work for whatever reason. It is essential to have support facilities available.”

When asked about his essential tools, Taylor runs through his IT aids, and then adds: “experience and a spirit of adventure – the last two are the key ones”.

Like Brymer, Green operates without a client account, and each focuses on advisory rather than transactional work, Green in the employment field. On the other hand Taylor, recently back from holidaying on the Adriatic, says he “had to keep an MBO [management buyout] moving from a hotel coffee shop in Kotor” while he was away, while Harrison has had to adapt a court practice to his working style.

Starting out

With such a relatively simple operation, how easy to get started is it really? Not difficult if you have done your homework, appears to be the answer. For Harrison it was six months’ planning, and an investment of about £10,000, from which the most expensive item was his Master Policy premium. Describing it as “almost a risk free enterprise”, in that he could afford to spend that amount and see how it went, he was able to take one client with him and hope that others would come in, as they did. Yet it was still a steep learning curve.

With the right tools, he is equally set up to work from his Edinburgh home or his Highland retreat. Incoming faxes and voicemail can be converted to email and forwarded to his BlackBerry. His main challenge was keeping up with incoming postal mail; he solved it by having a postal address with a sole practitioner who does operate from an office, and arranging for that firm to scan and forward any mail.

Taylor had been planning his move for two or three years, but being on gardening leave for the three months before his starting date still made things a lot easier for him. Brymer reports no major issues; and Green describes starting up as “relatively straightforward”: for him the main points arose from his incorporating a company and having that recognised by the Law Society of Scotland, registered for VAT etc.

Working from home is the norm for these practitioners, but not for meeting clients. “When we need to see clients, meetings tend to be at their offices or at the offices of a third party”, says Green. For Taylor, work is predicated on his clients being businesses, so he usually goes to their premises, but occasionally rents a hotel meeting room if business has to be conducted off site. Harrison sometimes borrows a room from a local office. Brymer has a base in Edinburgh, but can work from other premises in Glasgow or Dundee, “or, indeed, anywhere there is a need to provide a service to clients. A true virtual law practice is not tied to a desk”, he reminds us.

Human contact

As for human backup, Green, who advises “Make sure you go on holiday each year!”, at least has a consultant (a solicitor with young children who works from home) and paralegal support available. Taylor takes it as part of the lifestyle that he has to be available to clients even while on holiday: “but overall the benefits easily outweigh the downsides”. Brymer relies on “an excellent informal network of sole practitioners/small businesses to whom matters may be referred during holidays, illness etc”, adding: “It is all about keeping one’s clients informed and ensuring that risk management is uppermost in one’s mind.”

Harrison too has an arrangement with his sole practitioner colleague for mutual cover, but feels that longer term he needs something better. “I’ve had enough tedious holidays in the company of my BlackBerry, mobile and laptop. It was exciting at the start, but I would like a proper holiday now.” After four years working the way he does, he is finding it difficult to switch off.

Having invested in a server and software for multiple users, he hopes soon to be in a position to attract others to work as consultants: working probably from home with an existing client following, but using his IT hub in return for a percentage of the fees they earn. In this way he would begin to develop into the “dispersed firm” model now taking hold south of the border.

Brymer meantime is already expanding in a more informal way: his son, looking for a newly qualified position, has just started working for him. Although initially without any longer term commitment, both father and son have so far found it bringing unexpected rewards in deepening their relationship.

Could it be you?

At the end of the day, virtual practice represents another opportunity for those with the necessary skills and experience – which could embrace a good proportion of the profession. Malcolm Mackay was recently consulted by a sole practitioner with a reasonable turnover but losing money due to large office overheads, and who he reckoned could have a reasonably good income without these. Some legal aid practitioners indeed are finding themselves driven in this direction in order to survive under the current summary criminal fees regime.

Reflecting Iain Taylor’s call for experience and a spirit of adventure, Alex Green’s advice to others includes: “Have a decent network of contacts before you start. Have courage and the self confidence to succeed.” Like Stewart Brymer, he stresses the need for a sound, businesslike approach: “Run your business as you would any other – this means self discipline (i.e. a proper working day) and setting yourself realistic budgets and goals.”

If you can tick these boxes, you are in with a chance.

Tools of the trade

So what do you actually need by way of kit? A BlackBerry or equivalent appears to be standard. In addition, from the outset, you scan your mail and work from digital files. Mark Harrison uses LawPro office management and accounting software, which allows him to save all his documents against the individual matters to which they relate. He also invested in voice recognition – “the quality is very good now” – but doesn’t use it much as he has good typing speed.

Iain Taylor’s only specialist item is Dragon voice recognition software. Otherwise he works through Outlook and Excel, to keep things simple. His essential (physical) tools he lists as “PC, printer scanner, laptop, backup PC, mobile phone, webcam”. His other backup is an encrypted web-based service, “which also enables me to download any file from anywhere I am at any time. It has been tested once in anger, and worked perfectly”.

Brymer also counts voice recognition as an essential, along with laptop, BlackBerry, and central backup facilities linked to a desktop computer.

“It is also essential to monitor accounting facilities – although these can be eased if there is no need, as in my case, to operate a client’s account.”

Green too mentions the Dragon software, along with the BT Business broadband and mobile package which includes a BlackBerry. However his main software tool – hardware is similar to the others – is “an excellent package produced by OPSIS”, comprising case management and accounting, including money laundering compliance. Online libraries such as LexisNexis are another outlay. Having paralegal support, he also relies on Sage payroll software.

If you need them, there are plenty of businesses offering “virtual secretaries” – another variant of the outsourcing industry.

The need to be fully integrated and digitised is perhaps underlined by the experience of cl@n childlaw, the law centre launched last year to deliver legal advice and access to justice to children and young people. Solicitor Alison Reid admits that with she and her fellow adviser both working from home but relying on paper files as well as computers, it quickly became difficult to keep track of things. They have since moved in to a converted school building that is home to over 20 other voluntary organisations, where they can pay minimal rent, are properly networked, and have both an administrator and space for volunteer solicitors to work – a setup with which they are much happier.

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