21st Century Law Practice
He decided on the downtown guy, a lawyer with less experience and higher fees. Some day clients will get it. I used to have an office downtown. It was just a couple of blocks from the courthouse, and right around the corner from the touristy part of downtown. Although the landlord called it pristine real estate, my office overlooked a trash-filled parking lot filled with weeds sprouting out of the cement and a deserted building with graffiti all over it. Parking wasn't a problem because I won a lottery on a sliver of a parking space underneath the building. The other tenants called me lucky, but I wasn't so sure. The space cost me more than my car insurance each month.
The hard thing about that office was the overhead costs every month. The newspapers talk about the move of businesses to the suburbs, but my landlord apparently didn't read newspapers. Along with the rent, which was high, I had to pay my portion of taxes and expenses for common areas, and the parking as I mentioned. And then there was food; you didn't feel like you could bring a lunch sack every day. And the clothes—suits and shoes and ties and whatnot. When you added it all up, most of what a client paid in fees was just to keep up appearance.
A Virtual Office? Are You Kidding Me?
A few years ago, I had to complete some CLE courses so I decided to head to the state bar convention. I went to a prayer breakfast one morning and happened to sit next to a lawyer who told me he had been practicing out of his house for over eight years. Like anybody else, my first impression was, "Yeah and your biggest client is probably your brother-in-law." Boy, was I wrong. He rattled off a list of his clients and you would've thought that he was a name partner in some white-shoe firm.
I went to the CLE classes after that breakfast, but I couldn't get that guy's practice out of my head. Could you really have a substantive law practice and good clients and run it all from a virtual office? The more I thought about it, the more I couldn't find any reasons why it couldn't be done. I decided to try it out. I gave four weeks and if it didn't work, I'd renew my lease downtown.
An Electronic Practice
The four weeks came and went and I never went back to the old way of doing things. I told my suite mates that I was moving out; I was going to practice law in the 21st century. Today I run my practice on an iMac, iPad, and iPhone. That's it and that's all I need. I receive virtually all of my court filings, discovery, and correspondence electronically. If some old-school lawyer sends me correspondence on paper, the first thing I do is scan it into the iMac. My whole practice is on the iMac and I compose all my letters, briefs, and memos on it. And now I don't even print them out when I'm finished; I file them electronically with the courts.
The iPad has been a godsend and has provided me even more freedom from the stereotypical office. In the old days, just after I graduated from law school, I had to spend countless hours in the law library downtown to do my legal research. After a couple of years of wasting my life down there, I signed on to Lexis and was able to do it all online. Though that was much better, it still tied me down to a physical office. With my iPad, I can do all my research on the run. Whenever I have a big research project, like an appellate brief, due, I stick it in a backpack and head off wherever my heart may lead. I usually hit one of my favorite coffee shops and spend hours researching cases while babysitting a latte. This has meant a lot to my practice. My cases usually involve difficult legal issues or fact patterns, and the change of atmosphere helps to get my creative juices flowing. I've done some of my best legal work sitting next to fellow coffee drinkers who were playing board games. Frankly, I don't remember a single "Aha!" moment in the law library.
My iPhone has also upped the practice game. I had several telephone lines in my office downtown. A couple were voice lines and at least one was dedicated for faxes. If a court, lawyer, or client sent me an 11th hour fax, I'd have to stop whatever I was doing, hop in the car, and hightail it downtown to read it. Sometimes that'd happen two or three times in one day. If a client called and a legal assistant or colleague took a message, I wouldn't see it until the next day or even several days later if I was in trial. With my iPhone, all my faxes and calls come right into my left pants' pocket. I can riff off responses without even getting out of my chair.
All of this has had a dramatic effect on billing. Since my overhead is close to nil, I've been able to lower my billing rates. And that means that my clients get a lot more lawyer bang for the buck. Just the other day I was talking to an old law school friend of mine and his billing rates are more than twice mine. Is he twice the better lawyer? I don't think so. We both graduated with honors from the same law school and both were on law review. The only real difference between us is that he has a lot of overhead that he needs to pay for and I don't.
Clients Still Love Stereotypes
A lawyer's worth is not wrapped up in fancy offices, suits or shoes. It's the research, knowledge, experience, and good 'ole hard thinking that he brings to bear on the case that sets his worth. But some clients still don't realize this. It's going to take some time for the general public to see that a lawyer with a virtual, electronic office can be just as smart and good as his counterpart downtown. The public sees this with tech specialists and writers, but it still clings to wingtips when it comes to lawyers. It might take an O.J. case—a high-profile case that's won by a lawyer with an iPad—but it's just a matter of time before coffee shops everywhere are filled with lawyers, Lexis, and iPads.