What does a “mobile office” really mean for a lawyer?

IMG_2491In October of last year, when I started my own practice, I went through the usual steps of hanging up a shingle: registering with the Law Society and LawPro, printing business cards, drafting a retainer agreement, etc. When it came to finding an office, however, my situation was unusual. I was going to be based in Toronto but not based in Toronto: I was about embark on an extended adventure with my partner in India where he is working for 18 months while personally travelling to teach Grammatika International Legal English courses around the world. But I wanted to stay in law. So I decided to take my practice online and go mobile. I wanted a home for my practice but I didn’t need a desk.

I wanted a “home” for my practice but I didn’t need a desk.

This concept of a “virtual” practice and a “mobile” office is catching on in the legal profession. The motives behind this shift are plentiful and varied: work-life balance, family needs, the changing legal economy, the increasingly high debt load of law grads. It’s a trendy topic and there’s a lot of chatter about it. For me, it’s a relief to know I’m not the only one trying it out!

But what exactly does “mobile” mean? And “virtual”?  What does it actually look like for a lawyer? Does this fit into “new law”? I’ve asked myself these and many similar questions over the past year. In my quest for answers and guidance, I’ve spoken to many  other “new law” practitioners. I’ve realized that everyone has a different take and different experience.

There are some colleagues who have particularly inspired me in their different approaches to lawyering. These lawyers have incorporated a lot the elements discussed below (technology, unbundled services, mobile offices, travelling to clients, etc) and have been successful at it.

Two of my peers and friends, Renatta Austin and Avnish Nanda, stand out for their insight into new law and impressive creative thinking. Both have carved out unique practice areas and have used new technologies to their advantage. To name just a few of their innovative approaches, Renatta’s offering of unbundled services at affordable rates has definitely inspired me in how to structure my own services. Avnish works across two provinces (BC and Alberta), travelling frequently between each. Their success and interpretation of new law is an example of how non-traditional law practices can be done well.

I’ve also been inspired by the global practices that I’ve read about on the blog Legal Nomads -Thrillable Hours. The stories of Simon Shields and Rachel Rogers, lawyers from Canada and the US  (respectively) who established virtual law practices while living and travelling the world have – for obvious reasons – made an impression on me. Their stories planted the initial seed about launching an internationally mobile practice. I admired their conviction to live life how they wished and make their careers work for them rather than being bound by external factors.

In true word-nerdy fashion, I also went back to the definitions of both ‘mobile’ and ‘virtual’ to ground my understanding and plan my business. Mobile is defined as “able to move or be moved freely and easily.” I’ve taken this quite literally: I’m travelling around the world, renting desks in new cities to do my work, conducting the majority of it online via email, Skype, and other new technologies. While I have a base in Toronto, my office is transportable; it is quite literally my backpack.

While I have a base in Toronto, my office is transportable; it is quite literally my backpack.

For others, a “mobile” practice takes a different form. It could mean simply working at home, using similar technologies to what I use while abroad, only attending an office when meeting clients. For other lawyers, it means travelling to clients rather than the reverse. I met a lawyer in family court once who brought a mini printer and scanner to court to handle last minute documents from the waiting room. Simply put, I think a “mobile office” in the context of unconventional legal practices has come to mean flexible.

A‘mobile office’ in the context of unconventional legal practices has come to mean flexible.

I take “virtual practice” to signify one that functions primarily online, with technology. In my case, this is part and parcel of the definition of mobile. But I don’t know if one needs to be both. A virtual practice is, in my opinion, a concept even newer and more avant-garde than a mobile one. While people have worked from home at a “mobile” office for a long time (perhaps simply applying a different title or not defining it at all), the virtual concept is totally new because the technology is, too. To carry out such a practice effectively, a lot of thought, planning and research needs to be put into it.

In my experience, one of the greatest challenges in running a practice primarily online is finding clients and convincing them that this model works. In the discussion of new law, we often talk about how clients are driving this change. Clients don’t want to pay hourly fees anymore. Clients want tailored services. Clients want to communicate with their lawyers in a manner that is fast and convenient.

Yes, client demands have directed the modernization of law. But I think some clients still have a traditional idea of what a lawyer should be and how they should function. This may not be true of everyone who seeks out legal counsel, but I’ve witnessed some hesitation about the virtual model simply because the convention is so engrained. You want to hire a lawyer with an office who sits at a desk piled with law books in a glitzy building. Because that means they’re legit and competent. I mean, this perception is part of the reason why it’s taken the profession so long to shift as well.

To be frank, this really shouldn’t be a hard sell: quality, convenient service at more affordable rates has no downside. Still, it may be tougher initially because of the old school understanding of the law and law practice. I also made the point earlier that some clients may be unsure of the concept of a virtual practice because of an unfamiliarity with technology. That limits the scope in many ways.

Another point of consideration with a virtual practice is having some kind of physical base. Personally, I don’t know if it would be possible without it. I work in association with Jackman, Nazami & Associates, an immigration and refugee law firm in Toronto. In business terms, association for the practice of law means you run your own practice, handling client files and accounting on your own, but you share resources and help one another.

In literal terms, this association means I have an address, a mailbox, a central phone number, and, most importantly, a team to call on if a client needs assistance and I can’t be physically present. I am also travelling back to Toronto regularly and for significant periods of time to do work on the ground and meet clients face to face at that base. Depending on the kind of legal services you provide (perhaps if it is just consulting or advising, it would be different), it might be challenging to be completely virtual or mobile.

It may go without saying that a mobile/virtual office is a paperless one. The use of technology mentioned above makes this possible. However, I think a litigation practice would be challenging to do in this unorthodox mobile manner. The court system (in Canada anyways) is still so heavily reliant on paper. From application records to facsimiles, it is hard to avoid, although there are certainly ways to run a green(er) litigation practice.

Currently, I’m doing mostly solicitor-type work, which, in the immigration context, takes place primarily online anyways. Perhaps in the future when/if my practice employs someone who can be based in an office, returning to barrister work while being mobile(ish) will be possible, being present to do hearings and prep clients while doing the majority of the work off-site. Until then though, this is one of the sacrifices to be made.

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The list of questions, answers, and ideas about starting up a mobile law practice is a long one. The above is just a sliver of what I could say on the topic! Indeed, the process has been fascinating and continues to present unique challenges and benefits that make it a very worthwhile experiment, if not committed future lifestyle. The flexibility has definitely been the best part so far of running a virtual law practice. The most important lesson I’ve learned since starting out is that whatever model you choose to follow, it must fit you and be conducive to productivity and your fulfillment. The lack of structure of a mobile law practice might make one person extremely unhappy and be the raison d’être of another. For some practices, it just doesn’t make strategic or financial sense.

Having said all of that, I guess the answer to my initial question “What is a mobile/virtual law practice?” is the classic lawyer retort: it depends.

 

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