Going Virtual: An Option to Achieve Balance

There is no question that working parents struggle with trying to “have it all.”. Having worked full-time, part-time and then "opted out" to care for my young sons, I have come to the conclusion it will always be hard. Each presents its own challenges in achieving balance (yes, even stay-at-home moms find it hard to find time and energy to nurture their own personal interests and keep one foot out the door in between careers) so major kudos to all you working and non-working parents out there!!

I worked full-time at law firms in estate planning for a few years, then I went part-time after my first son was born, and then I worked at a large bank full-time until we were relocated from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Dallas, Texas for my husband’s job. I was pregnant with our second child at the time and I was ecstatic and grateful for the opportunity to take a time-out and focus on the kids. But I never intended to leave the workforce permanently. So once we became more settled in our new home in Texas and once the new baby “fog” lifted, I decided to go “virtual” and do estate planning for Michigan clients out of our home in Texas.  After all, I had this large network of contacts and referrals in Michigan that I had worked hard over eight years to build and I wanted to maintain that. I did not feel like starting over in a new state or learning a new state's laws from scratch again.

Connect with Other Virtual Lawyers First

I started out by spending many hours researching what it takes to build a successful virtual law office (VLO). I began by connecting with other attorneys who were virtual, such as Rania Combs, a successful Texas estate planning attorney who resides in North Carolina. Funnily enough, her decision to go virtual stems from nearly the exact same reasons as mine. She explained that she had been licensed and practicing in Texas for over 14 years until her husband received a job offer in North Carolina that he couldn’t pass up. “At the time, we didn't know how long we'd be in North Carolina, and the move certainly brought to light that another job-related move might be necessary at some point in our lives. Having made the decision to start a solo practice, the last thing I wanted to do was to start from scratch if we ever moved again. So the portability of a web-based practice was really appealing to me.” Yep, what she said.

What is a VLO?

So what is a VLO anyway? It simply is a law firm that does not have a physical office and one that operates on a cloud-based law practice management system. In other words, all client communications and documents are stored securely online. And video conferences can take the place of actual physical client meetings. Emails take up the bulk of communications too (at least for me). I am hearing impaired with a cochlear implant, so I prefer video conferences and emails anyway.

Design a Website and Choose a Cloud-Based Law Practice Management Software

The next step was to get a website up and running. I loved the idea of hiring a professional to design an amazing and beautiful website, but in trying to keep startup costs and overhead as low as possible, I paid $299 for the highest subscription on Wordpress (because I wanted to be able to customize the site as much as possible) and spent several nights over Christmas vacation with my husband playing around with it.  I am sure I will eventually hire a professional to revamp the website, but for now, having complete control and little overhead costs in maintaining the website has its perks.

In addition to a website, and more importantly, I needed a way to store all client communications and documents securely because I was not going to have a physical office space with file cabinets. So I needed to, essentially, take my office to the “cloud.” There are many cloud-based law practice management services out there, and after many hours of research, I decided on MyCase. In fact, Ms. Combs uses MyCase as well. Clients can login to their own online account “portals” where they can see their documents and communicate with me directly if they do not want to email me. The key is that this is a secure and confidential way to store documents and messages. For more information about MyCase and its law firm data security measures, feel free to read about it here. Really, using a cloud-based law practice management software is the only thing that sets a VLO differently from any attorney who works out of a brick-and-mortar law office with space for file cabinets.

Put Yourself Out There

I am sure many solo practitioners - or anyone that who works remotely - would agree that it can be isolating. I don't have the benefit of bouncing ideas or questions off colleagues like I did in the law firms I've worked at. However, I do have friends and acquaintances still in Michigan that I know I can reach out to if I have a question. I also signed up for access to the Michigan Institute of Continuing Legal Education's online legal resource database which isn't cheap but it is so helpful to have.

Virtual lawyers like Ms. Combs and me are also at a slight disadvantage since we are not able to network in person. The best way to market ourselves is via social media. Which was tricky for me because putting myself “out there” other than posting cute pictures of my kids on Facebook sometimes made me want to crawl in a hole. I got over that and set up a separate Facebook page for my firm to post links to blog articles on my website. I was skeptical about even using Twitter, but Ms. Combs, an active Twitter user, mentioned that it has been a good source of referrals for her, so I have given it a try. While I still don’t love it yet and it hasn’t brought in direct referrals yet, but it has connected me with many referral sources in Michigan and across the country.

Another important means of "putting myself out there" is maintaining content on my website by blogging on topics relevant to current and prospective clients. But the key is to do it regularly and as often as possible so that you can build enough content on your site for “search engine optimization” (SEO) purposes. Truthfully, I find that blogging regularly to be the most challenging part for me.  It is not easy finding time to sit down and pump out articles on a regular basis – it’s hard enough (and time-consuming) to write one short article about a complicated area of the law and draft it in a way that is readable by laypeople. It is still fun and very rewarding because I enjoy writing.

Starting Out Is Not As Easy As You'd Think

Starting a VLO is not as easy as one would think. That goes for any solo practitioner who is starting out, whether virtually or not. Ms. Combs says “the concept of a ‘virtual law office’ is attractive to many attorneys who would like to start a solo practice but are trying to minimize start-up costs. I get a lot of emails and phone calls from attorneys seeking advice on how to start one. From my visits with them, I’ve found many underestimate the challenges of building a successful solo practice.” I am still only eight months into my VLO, but Ms. Combs has been doing it since 2008. As she has said – and I have quickly learned – that it has not been as easy I expected it to be starting out. But I am taking advantage of this early period by taking the time to figure out what works best for clients and for me so that I can be more efficient later on down the road. 

Ms. Combs has said “[m]any attorneys who contact me are under the misconception that clients will come knocking down their virtual door as soon as their website goes live. It’s not as easy as that. Regardless of whether it is web-based or brick-and-mortar, building a law firm takes a lot of time and hard work. All firms need a business development strategy that engages new clients and cultivates relationships with existing clients and referral sources. An attorney could have outstanding credentials and provide excellent representation, but without clients, a law practice will not survive. Before I launched my solo practice, several trusted mentors recommended I spend at least several hours each week focusing on business development, regardless of how busy I felt at work. This could include connecting with someone personally, accepting an invitation to write or speak, calling a client to wish him a happy birthday, or thanking a referral source for the new client she referred.”

The Verdict: There is Always a Trade-Off in Trying to “Have It All” As A Working Parent

Having a web-based practice has given me the flexibility to control my schedule and the ability to balance the kids’ schedules with mine which is what we need now especially since we have no family or close friends nearby yet and  my husband travels quite frequently. The same goes for Ms. Combs. She typically works while her kids are in school, shutting down around 4:30 so that she can take them to activities, watch them compete in their various sporting events, cook dinner, and so on. And she can then resume her work late in the evening when she needs to. This is the same type of balance I am trying to achieve as my kids grow and get busier with their lives. 

Despite the downsides that are inherent for anyone who is a solo practitioner, whether virtual or not, I still believe there is always a trade-off somewhere no matter where you work, or who you work for, or how many hours you work a week. - I am not sure that trying to “have it all” is even a possible goal. But for now, I am thankful and grateful that I can work virtually for my clients, while being able to set a more flexible schedule. 

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