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DTCI: A virtual office for the legal profession?

April 19, 2017

DTCI-moss-libby-valosImagine starting your day checking email and making phone calls all while sitting comfortably at home in your pajama pants (or whatever attire you desire to wear first thing in the morning). Now imagine that you are able to start every work day in the same fashion because you work from home. Is this really a possibility for lawyers in the future, or is our profession not cut out for the virtual office? While I cannot offer solutions in this article, I hope the following will encourage law firms to think outside the box and not immediately dismiss such an arrangement.

GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com reports the non-self-employed population who regularly work from home has grown by 103 percent since 2005. In January 2016, 3.7 million employees — 2.8 percent of the workforce — worked from home at least half the time. While some law firms have already implemented policies that allow work-from-home arrangements on a part-time or full-time basis, it has not yet become the norm in our profession. However, could this be the wave of the future? What are the benefits and pitfalls of offering employees the option of working from a virtual office?

Certainly, there are advantages for a law firm having attorneys who work from a virtual office. The law firm can lower its overhead by reducing the size of its physical office(s) and the number of support staff. If a virtual office allows more flexibility for attorneys, it is likely that they would enjoy greater job satisfaction and be less likely to change employers. There cannot be enough said about generating a good work-life balance that a virtual office can offer.

A law firm may also find itself more attractive to candidates who are uninterested in the traditional 40- to 50-hour- plus work week spent at an office away from family and friends. Attorneys who are working virtually can be more efficient without interruptions that often come from working in an office environment; this can result in increased client satisfaction.

Despite the advantages that can accrue to law firms that offer a work-from-home arrangement, I can also envision some pitfalls. First, attorneys lose the camaraderie that comes with working many hours with colleagues in the same space. It may also be more difficult to mentor and train young associates when there is no opportunity to show them how to handle different situations rather than simply telling them. The collaborative approach used by many attorneys to work on cases would be lost in some respect without the ability to engage in banter over different issues arising throughout the litigation process. There is something to be said for discussing a case or issue with another colleague; it often leads to an approach to the case different from what was originally planned.

But are these potential pitfalls enough to cause law firms to abandon the idea of attorneys working in a virtual setting? Camaraderie can be fostered with face-to-face meetings on a regular basis, through telephone conferences and firm-sponsored events. The associates entering the legal profession have grown up in a world of technology and may better receive criticism and mentoring via email and telephone conversations. That is the way they learned in school, and they may find it easier to learn how to be a good lawyer in the way that is familiar to them. Attorneys could still discuss specific cases and issues, the conversation would just be held via telephone or email, rather than in person. In fact, perhaps omitting the face-to-face conversation may prompt some to raise additional issues or ask questions they would not have raised for fear of offending the other attorney. It is much easier to be brutally honest to someone, even those you admire and respect, from behind a computer.

I haven’t even touched on the practicalities and logistics of how an attorney could work in a virtual office, including managing documents, security issues that arise in a paperless office, use of paralegals and support staff, and so forth. That would be an entirely different article — one much longer than this. But if your firm is approached about a virtual office arrangement and your immediate reaction is negative, perhaps some of my comments will cause you to think twice and be open to a new idea. Besides, who wouldn’t want to work in a world of elastic waist pants?•

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Libby Valos Moss is a partner in the Indian-apolis office of Kightlinger & Gray and serves on the DTCI Board of Directors. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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