You’ve read about the “paperless” office. You may even be working in one right now. You are already using a wide range of tech tools to do more for more clients in less time. We all know it is no longer optional that lawyers learn all they can to become technologically competent. We need this know-how to keep up with the pace of our demanding practices.
But where will you go with all of that tech? Though I despise the phrase (one of the most painfully vacant expressions in modern usage), maybe it’s time to (gulp) “think outside the box” — that square space you’re sitting in right now.
You, there, in that nicely appointed Herman Miller chair, comfortably ensconced behind the handsome solid-cherry desk, resting firmly on the office-appropriate Berber carpet of your high-cost downtown office — I’m talking to you. Have you ever thought of busting out, of kicking down the walls that confine you? What’s holding you back?
We’re fortunate in Colorado. In my multi-state professional work these days, I have the benefit of seeing how things are done in other states. None of their court systems are as technologically advanced as ours. None of the states I travel to out West have court systems that are more well-suited for virtual practice than ours. Here, we are unencumbered by the anachronisms that plague the pursuit of progress in many other states.
With statewide electronic court filing, the electronic exchange of documents, teleconferences and videoconferences becoming the preferred way to talk with clients, counsel and even courts, we can “practice anywhere.” So, why don’t we?
Why are we still crawling into our cars every morning and slogging through rush hour traffic to our “box,” neatly aligned with all of the other square boxes, in the large stack of square boxes that is our office building?! Heck, The Lincoln Lawyer debuted six years ago. We’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we? Yeah, I know. I don’t look like Matthew McConaughey either. And I don’t drive an old Lincoln.
But I digress by thinking out of the box.
The means to “practice remotely” are all within your grasp. You may already have the tools you need. If your firm already uses electronic files, electronic case management, etc., then there is nothing tethering you to your desk.
I mentioned my “multi-state” professional existence earlier. My work involves extensive travel to states throughout the West. There is no way I could do what I do without the ability to work in real-time wherever I am. My practice requires me to be as professionally effective in Seattle, Salt Lake City, Scottsdale and Sacramento as I am at my desk in Denver. So, I had to deploy all the tools that the present affords us to make that reality happen.
My “office” is wherever I am — not the four walls back in the Mile High City. When I am in any of my cities, my desk phone rings straight through to my iPhone 7. I don’t leave an “out of office” message because it wouldn’t be true. Most callers don’t even know I am not in Denver sitting at a desk. On my laptop (and, hopefully soon, a tablet) I am able to quickly navigate to their electronic file, (or to any of the other files in the six offices I work with), via a secure MiFi device tunneled through a Virtual Private Network (VPN). (Don’t worry — all of that structure fades into the background before you know it). I can even stay in touch on the home front with Facetime on my iPad Air.
If I have a question of one of my assistants or other lawyers, I shoot them a text on an internal messaging application. Most respond immediately, often more quickly than if I had to walk down the hall to talk with them, because they may be “remote.” If needed, I can open a videoconference with them as easily as dialing their phone. While I haven’t escaped my “box” altogether as of yet, the day will come when that happens organically. Many of you are already there, aren’t you? It is easier today than ever before to begin, manage and thrive in a “virtual law office” practice setting.
The key to it all is connectivity. None of this works if your office systems aren’t up to it. There are plenty of resources, blogs and articles out there (and right here, in back issues of The Docket) that detail the hardware and software needs you’ll face in “going virtual.” You’ll see plenty of good advice on hardware and software that will deliver what you need: a highly reliable, secure connection to your office’s files and systems (if you’re still “logging on” to the Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop, stop. Such networks are completely insecure).
But more important than the machines is the mindset. Too often, I have seen lawyers’ emotional reticence about technology derail them before they ever get up from their desks. They fear that all that tech will quit on them when they need it most. They fear they will never be able to “get away from work” if they are “always connected.” They worry that they will be “isolated” if they were to step away from the office. Maybe (like me), they worry that if they aren’t there to “keep an eye” on everything, it will all fall apart. I’m not here to tell you these concerns are unfounded. They’re not. But they can all be overcome, easily, with sound planning, professional execution and the right state of mind.
The answer may seem incongruous, but other “virtual” practitioners will likely agree: Remember what I said about “connectivity?” I didn’t just mean the hardware.
Just because my office is “everywhere” doesn’t mean I don’t also need to share real, face-to-face contact with my fellow professionals. In fact, that face-to-face interaction is even more important when we practice virtually. In my organization, that means getting around to my other offices to check in, talk with the teams, and keep them well-trained, well-motivated and headed in the right direction. In the broader professional sense, my “virtual” office practice makes it even more critical that I take advantage of my bar association membership.
Face-to-face contact with other professionals should never be lost when you step away from the office. On the contrary, it makes all the difference. Just because you can run your practice from the banks of your favorite trout stream or your cozy home office doesn’t mean you never need to get together with other lawyers.
By joining and getting involved in state and local bar committees pertinent to your practice, an Inn of Court, or other professional group, you retain all the best aspects of an “office practice”: the camaraderie, collegial collaboration, brainstorming and “idea factory” aspects of being down the hall from other lawyers while also gaining the advantages and time-leveraging of a virtual practice. Even getting together with professional colleagues over coffee or microbrews on a regular basis helps keep this critical form of “connectivity” active and vibrant. That “analog” connectivity is essential to a virtual practice.
The day may come when even large firms base themselves in the “virtual” world, with no fixed real estate to call home. In fact, it may already be here. (See http://blog.specialcounsel.com/employment-trends/practicing-in-virtual-law-firm/.) But we will never lose the need to connect, both virtually and actually. The secret to success in the “virtual” world is to retain the “analog” connections that nourish us professionally, while freeing ourselves from the real estate that can otherwise confine us.
And about that “always on” worry? All those tools come with convenient “power off” buttons. D
Doug McQuiston has specialized in civil litigation, complex tort, professional liability and insurance law for more than 35 years. He is a member, contributing writer and past chair of the Docket Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.