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Attorneys feel at home with virtual practices

May 18, 2016

Kenneth Riggins had a nice home office that he never used. His wife had put a lot of work into it, but he just never had a chance to work from home.

So in 2007 when the building he was practicing from on New York Street in Indianapolis was sold, he decided to try a virtual practice. He contacted his good friend attorney Jamie Edgar looking for a space to practice. Edgar said he didn’t have room for a full-time tenant, so Riggins suggested a virtual tenancy.

A virtual tenancy meant that Riggins would do most of his work online and from home, but still have access to office space when he wants it. He would get his mail and faxes at the office, but would not be at the office unless he needed to meet with a client, or needed to get work done in another location.

Nine years later, Edgar has eight virtual tenants in his historic house on North Delaware Street in Indianapolis and Riggins, whom Edgar calls “virtual tenant number one,” is able to use his home office while still having access to another physical office location.

“It’s worked really well. You might be able tell I’m not a traditional lawyer,” Riggins, who was wearing workout clothes at the time, said. “I’m able to do most everything from home. I can meet my clients via the internet and most of the time I can wear jeans, pajamas, whatever I want. I put on a suit when I have to. Nine years later and we’re rolling along.”

Riggins is one of just a few lawyers practicing virtually, according to a 2015 American Bar Association Tech Report. In that study, 5 percent of respondents overall described their practice as a virtual practice, down from 7 percent in 2014. Two percent said they didn’t know if their practice was virtual or not. Virtual was defined as doing most work, including interacting with clients, online.

However, use of a virtual office, which Riggins has with his arrangement with Edgar, was up slightly in the survey from 5 to 7 percent. Use among solo practitioners rose from 8 to 10 percent.

Riggins said he only needs a scanner, a laptop, and an app called Office Client he uses to meet with clients in prison securely from his laptop or phone. That technology and his phone are all he’s needed to work away from the office.

The advantages of working virtually for Riggins have not been limited to just using his home office.

He’s been able to do work from anywhere. He’s worked from his car, while on vacation and while out of the country. He’s also been able to reduce costs.

“I went from a staggering overhead to virtually no overhead,” Riggins said.

That reduction has come from not paying for many office expenses, and also paying a lot less in rent to Edgar than he was paying in his traditional office. For $220 a month, Riggins gets a desk when he wants it, an office where faxes and mail are delivered and a meeting place if he needs it. The drastic cut in expenses has freed up Riggins to concentrate his practice more on cases he wants, instead of cases he needs to meet expenses.

“I can be a lot more choosy, and that’s been nice,” Riggins said

Edgar himself also worked virtually for a little more than a year as he finished renovations on the building he now occupies, but he decided to end that only because he needed to be in the building to run it properly.

Edgar said his virtual tenants have been a little more transient than his permanent tenants in the building, but that’s something he’s expected. Most of his virtual tenants who have left have moved to better jobs.

Practicing virtually “can be very liberating,” Edgar said. “The technology now makes it possible to do it every day of the week.”

He said he’s probably at his limit with eight virtual tenants, as more than that might mean too much competition for work space and meeting space, but as long as his “overflow” spaces in the attic remain mostly empty, he knows everyone has room to work.

The tenants in Edgar’s office, both virtual and non-virtual, have formed a community. Most practice criminal defense, including Edgar, and there are celebrations when someone wins a case. There also have been fundraisers for non-profit organizations.

“I think sometimes when you go virtual you miss that social aspect,” Riggins said. “That’s another thing I like about this arrangement. I’ve made a lot of friends here.”

Scott Devries, another of Edgar’s virtual tenants who practices criminal defense, said his switch to a virtual practice has also been all positive. He uses the Delaware Street location as his mailing address and has also been able to keep expenses down while practicing when and where he wants.

“I have a young son and to be able to stay home with him is a big advantage,” Devries said. “Really the biggest challenge for me is not working too much.”

Storage has sometimes been a problem for virtual tenants, but Riggins and Devries said they’ve been able to keep most things to a couple of boxes in their houses. Scanning documents has helped, as has today’s technology. Most communication comes through email and is thus easy to save.

Amy DeBrota, an employment law attorney based in Carmel, has been practicing virtually for few a years, but has taken it one step further. She’s also started a business called Home Front LLC that she manages virtually. Home Front provides temporary legal services to lawyers who may need help from time to time. DeBrota said about half of her stable of workers that provide those services also work virtually.

“It’s evolved over time as I’ve suggested to clients they might get a bigger pool if they allow help at least part time to work from home,” DeBrota said. “People were hesitant in the beginning but it’s increased a lot. People have gotten a lot more used to it.”

DeBrota said it’s been a steady move to virtual as “attorneys are not always on the vanguard of change.” All of her workers, however, have a year of legal experience and go through two stages of rigorous interviews, she said, which are usually conducted on the phone.

“They know how to do legal research and they know how to help,” DeBrota said.

One thing that has helped with the transition to virtual is that most of her help is willing to work for a little less money if they work virtually.

“They value that flexibility and if they’re not commuting, it makes it a little more affordable,” DeBrota said.•

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