Is Law Going Virtual?

The virtual world touches every aspect of modern life and permeates every industry, changing how we do our jobs and reinventing the ways we interact every day. The law is no exception when it comes to digital assimilation. And since the early 2000s, digital law practitioners have been gaining an ever-increasing foothold in the market.

The fact is, many people simply prefer to conduct their business online, legal or otherwise, and anyone who chooses to ignore this fact is destined to become redundant, sooner or later. The rise of digitally-based law firms is testament to just how much things have changed, even in the most regulated environment possible.

But are virtual law firms here to stay or is there just no substitute for bricks and mortar partnerships? In this article, we touch on a few of the factors that are affecting digital law in the UK and beyond, and offer a brief analysis of the facts at hand.

How market circumstances created the virtual law firm
The rise of digital cannot be denied, not even by the law. And as every industry adapted its practices to suit the digitally orientated consumer’s needs, it was only a matter of time before the legal profession followed suit.

Cloud-based practice management solutions have made it possible to run the modern law firm from practically anywhere in the world and as more people in various professions choose to work remotely, why shouldn’t lawyers, too? Overheads are far lower; capital outlay is minimal, and connectivity has become a powerful working tool.

Brands like Gunnercooke, Keystone Law and Excello Law are forging ahead with attractive “work from home” options for lawyers and more affordable legal solutions for clients. Digital practices have become so commonplace now that they aren’t even really referred to as “virtual firms” anymore. They’re now generally called “dispersed law firms” and many of them now include the option to work from a bricks and mortar office as and when preferred.

The pros and cons of digital law
For legal practitioners, there are many advantages to working remotely. Lower costs mean higher profits, and solicitors who work digitally often see more fees than those who work in a traditional firm. Reduced overheads can also result in savings on the client’s side, as solicitors can, in some cases, operate on lower fee structures.

For clients, there is also the added convenience of having their solicitor no more than a click away, without having to navigate through receptionists or calendars quite as much. And as most exchanges in the digital world are recorded in writing, mistakes could be less likely to filter through the cracks.

The other side of the coin, though, is that a brick and mortar firm provides access to several resources that may not even spring to mind. For example, any solicitor who works within a traditional, regulated partnership hierarchy has the added benefit of not practising in a vacuum.

At any time, they are able to tap into the knowledge base offered by like-minded professionals in close proximity, who also have the client’s best interests at heart. So, while fees may be at a premium in some cases, many clients get a second or third legal opinion worked into the price they pay.

There is also a lot to be said – particularly when it comes to mediating in various disputes – for face-to-face meetings in the real world versus digital exchanges. When paperwork needs to be exchanged and signed quickly, it’s naturally easier to facilitate in an office than it is via couriers or digital means. And meeting face-to-face also fosters empathy – both for clients and for solicitors.

It’s probably safe to say that, for now at least, four-dimensional law firms are still fairly safe. But as ways of working change all over the world, that opinion may bear re-evaluation in a decade or so.

What happens next?
Until recently, dispersed law firms have remained largely unrecognised by the legal profession in a sense, as solicitors working in many of these businesses have, thus far, been required to refer to themselves as “non-practising” or to apply for an individual waiver from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

A recent court decision granting dispersed firm, Aria Grace Law (AGL), a general waiver on that point, though, may be evidence of a new precedent and could be a sign of things to come. For AGL, the waver means that the solicitors at their firm can practise using their titles without having to seek an individual waiver. And this decision could see more dispersed firms follow suit.

As the trend gains momentum, online practises will almost certainly become more regulated as the market grows. As with any new business environment, waters must be thoroughly tested before any truly formal structures can be cemented into place. Regulatory environments are grown, not born. And this is probably more true of the legal profession than it is of anything else.

Practises like Keystone Law, Gunnercooke and Excello allow their solicitors to remain self-employed and work from anywhere they like, with the added benefit of a back office and various other support structures. For many, this signals a refreshing new take on the culture of the legal business, as solicitors are working smarter to find better work-life balance than they had when they worked at brick and mortar firms. Could this signal a new trend? Time will tell.

Stay on trend with Ortus Group
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Our team is on-hand to critically and strategically guide you and your company through change management, and to provide learned counsel when you need it most. Trust Ortus to help you transition smoothly and take the next step in your business with confidence. We keep our finger on the pulse to keep the heart of your business beating.