Going Virtual: Benefits of Shifting to a Virtual Law Firm

The idea of going virtual is an increasing thought among many law firm owners, especially in the times we are going through with the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased productivity, accessibility, and cost savings is just some of the many benefits of going virtual. The process of transferring to a virtual firm however is where the real challenge lies. In this episode I am joined with Melanie Leonard, owner of Streamlined Legal, a consulting service that offers personalized consulting services, training, and education to law firms who are looking to create efficiencies with the use of practice management software. 


In this episode, Melanie and I will discuss:

  • Moving from brick and mortar to virtual law office
  • Overcoming the challenges of physical things – faxes; mail; phone lines; etc.
  • Overcoming the resistance to creating a virtual law office
  • Implementing out of office activity from our in-office activity
  • Tech needs
  • Video conferencing to manage remote teams
  • Creating a work-space in the home
  • KPIs for remote employees

Are you interested in converting your brick and mortar law firm into a virtual law firm? Contact Melanie today melanie@streamlined.legal to learn more. 

To contact Melanie

Website: streamlined.legal

Email: melanie@streamlined.legal

Allison Williams: [00:00:08] Hi, everybody. I want to welcome you again to the Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor Podcast, and today my special guest is Miss Melanie Leonard. Melanie, welcome to the show.


Melanie Leonard: [00:00:18] Thank you so much. Glad to be here.


Allison Williams: [00:00:20] So, Melanie, you know, you and I have had the opportunity to speak before. I had the pleasure of interviewing you in our Facebook group. And at that time, you talked to me about a lot of very interesting topics, including this idea of paperless. But today, we’re going to go a little bit deeper beyond that to talking about remote-ifying or virtualizing a law firm. So with today’s current circumstances, we are recording this at the time that our country is facing, and our world is facing, the global pandemic of corona virus. A lot of law firms are struggling with how to get themselves out of a brick and mortar and into a completely remote environment. And that’s something that you have personal experience with. So I’d like to talk to you, first, I’d like to let everybody know about your life as a real estate lawyer turned owner of Streamlined Legal.


Melanie Leonard: [00:01:08] Yeah, it was quite a journey. It continues to be quite a journey. But I did start practicing in the Chicago suburbs. I did residential real estate. I did a couple of things before that, but really landed on real estate and started my practice that I had for about 12 years doing closings for people. And it was, it was great. It just got to a point where I really enjoyed systematizing my firm and building those procedures more than I enjoyed practicing law. And so I started to meet more attorneys. And just by virtue of sitting across from them at the closing table, we’d start talking about how we had organized our firms and what we were doing. And people would just ask for help. And I got very involved in the practice management software, Clio. So a lot of people would ask me for help with that and just started building these relationships with other attorneys and got to the point where it was just a little bit too much for me at the time to handle two businesses at once. So I decided that I would go ahead and sell that law firm and start Streamlined Legal where I can really focus on helping other attorneys, you know, get the most out of their practice management software, build procedures and systems that were going to help them get the most out of their software and really just help them streamline their whole business in an effort to bring them not only more money, but also more time and freedom and flexibility, which is what I really appreciated about the practice that I had.


Allison Williams: [00:02:39] Wow. So, you know, you say that you you you liked getting into the system. So that’s kind of like word porn for me. I’m just going to put that out there. I love systems and I love hearing about systems. So what is it that appeals to you about the idea of systematizing in the first place?


Melanie Leonard: [00:02:56] You know, I’m glad you asked that, because I do get people stating that, you know, maybe systematizing is like creating a McDonald’s out of your law firm, you know, and we don’t want to be a commodity and we want to give our clients very focused and special attention. And I agree with that. I think you should give your clients very focused and special attention. But the reality is, if you have a firm that is not running on a system, then you’re treating every case that comes in as individually very different. And without finding those commonalities, you’re putting in a lot more time and energy, basically recreating the wheel every time. Whereas if you have a system where you can instead identify those outliers much more quickly and give yourself the time to address them, you’re going to be able to help your clients a lot more. You know, if you’re re-creating an invoice, every time that you have the same flat fee matter come in, then you’re basically spending time on things that are not going to advance the clients. I mean, yes, they need to get an invoice, but that’s not going to help them solve their problem. So it’s definitely I think systematizing your firm allows you more time and energy to address those outlying cases and give them that attention that they need and not necessarily waste your time on a more systematic approach, or the more systematic tasks.


Allison Williams: [00:04:21] Yeah. So I think that’s an excellent point. I think you’re right that you’re going to preserve a lot more mental energy if you devote it to the things that really matter and not the minutia that just keeps the doors open and the lights on. And so you actually have gone through the process of virtualizing. So let’s talk a little bit about what that is. So for a lot, for law firm owners that really are struggling with this concept of how do I go from a brick and mortar business to having a virtual law office? I don’t even know what that virtual business feels like, seems like, looks like. How do you help them to first just define what the distinctions of the two are? And then second, to actually get into that?


Melanie Leonard: [00:05:01] Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think that the reality is that there’s no right or wrong answer as to what your virtual firm looks like, as long as you can get the job done, you know. So whether you want to have a virtual firm so you can practice out of your house or if you want to practice while you’re traveling or if you want to, you know, whatever your idea of success is. I think that we can use a virtual firm to accomplish that. But there’s no right or wrong answer in that regard. I think what you need to focus on when trying to take these steps and create a virtual firm out of your existing brick and mortar firm is we need to start looking at what are the things that I can already do remotely. Because chances are there may be some that you don’t even think about that you know, you can do perfectly well from home or from somewhere else. And what are the things that are going to be a challenge that we need to start looking for other ways to accomplish them? So, for example, one of the things that might already be easy enough that you hadn’t already thought of maybe was, you know, are you storing your documents on a Dropbox or some other cloud based service? Then great. Even though you’re not in the office, it won’t make a difference. You know, you’ll be able to access everything you could out of the office that you could in the office. So that kind of a thing, I think you’ll find some of those things that won’t need a lot of change, but then you’ll find the things that do need a lot of attention. And those would be things like, you know, we get a check that comes in the mail from, you know, the courts every month to pay for court appointed services or whatever. You know, those are the kind of things we’d start looking at, physical things like mail.


Melanie Leonard: [00:06:43] If you’re still getting your faxes in a physical form, you know,.


Allison Williams: [00:06:47] I’m laughing now because I’ve made a horrified face, that anyone is using fax machines.


Melanie Leonard: [00:06:55] I hope that’s not the case. But if we’re talking about physical things, we’re talking about that. We’re talking about phone lines that maybe come into the office, you know, physically come into the office. If we don’t have a voice over IP line or something like that. So those are the kind of things we need to start looking at and evaluating and figuring out how we’re going to handle those things remotely. Because there, there are answers for all of it. I mean, there’s answers for in-person consultations in your conference room. Move to a video conference. You know, there’s there’s answers for all of it. It’s just a question of what’s going to work for you and what you’re going to feel most comfortable with.


Allison Williams: [00:07:34] Yeah, I think I love the fact that you say that there is an answer to all of it, because, of course, we know some law firms that are 100 percent virtual. So clearly they function, they function with a level of professionalism that many of us require and expect of our own businesses. So the question that comes to mind when I hear that is what if somebody said to you, OK, I know that Susie Smith down the road has a virtual law firm, but you know, that’s not me. I can’t, I can’t do that. You know that, we know that that’s really about the mindset of the person. So how do you help somebody overcome that resistance that comes up when they say, you know, I just don’t know that I could not have my paper and not have my physical life location?


Melanie Leonard: [00:08:16] Yeah. So there’s a couple of things. First of all, I would talk to them to look at what their motivations are. You know, are they really committed to having a virtual firm for some particular reason? You know, maybe they are getting close to retirement and want to spend more time at a, you know, a second home or something, you know, like what are the motivations that made them want to think about going virtual in the first place? Because those are the things that are going to pull them through some of these harder times when, when it gets challenging, because it will be challenging. It’s change. Right? There’s nothing, there’s nothing easy about it. It’s going to be a change. So first, looking at the motivation. Second of all, basically looking at the idea that we need to make sure that they have confidence in these new systems that they’re going to be employing. So, for example, if we’re going to start using a cloud based storage system like Dropbox and they’ve never used anything like that before, you know, let’s start using it while we’re in the office so that when you actually physically leave the office, it doesn’t seem like such a big difference. So there are things that we can start doing while we’re in the office that will translate well to when we’re out of the office. And I think that that’s a great way to start implementing things. The other thing we need to think about is we need to make sure that the things that we’re trying to accomplish are very well structured.


Melanie Leonard: [00:09:44] So, for example, if we’re talking about, we’re going to do video conferencing consultations instead of having them come into the office in person. Let’s write out a procedure. Let’s get the tools necessary. Let’s have it very defined as to how this is going to happen, because a lot of times what happens is people get nervous because they don’t know and they say, well, what if the software doesn’t work? Well, let’s try the software for a couple of weeks while we’re in the office. You know, test it out with our team, test it out with a couple of key clients and see how it works, you know? So being able to take it one step at a time and see these things in action, I think will really help overcome some of those fears. And if we have it written out, you know, this is the procedure. Here’s how we do the meeting. Every single time. And we can rely on that. Then I think that, that will help give people a little more security. And again, that those steps are not going to solve every concern that the person has. But they will put us on the right path. And so I think that the more that we just try those tools and have success with them, the more confidence we’re gonna gain.


Allison Williams: [00:10:56] Yeah. So confidence is definitely a part of the process of making sure people actually use the various different tools and software that you’re going to create in this process rather than what a lot of people do is try to revert back to the old and then they aren’t using the new. So then you have two concurrent systems running and I see a lot of that with with lawyers that are very, very hard wired to resist change. So let’s talk a little bit about what that technology looks like. You know, you and I have talked a lot about practice management software, so I know that that’s one of the key elements. But what else would a person really need in order to make their law firm virtual and operate in a virtual world?


Melanie Leonard: [00:11:32] Yeah, I think, you know, we start with the practice management to make sure we’re all organized and on the same page and sharing the same information. But then the reality is a big part of lawyering, is to have to communicate with other people, you know, whether it’s your team internally or your clients or potential clients. So we need to look at that communication key and talk about, you know, I’m assuming you’re already using email and that’s easy enough to accommodate from outside the office. But what tends to be more of a challenge are the phone calls. And so having some type of flexible phone system, I think is key. And the most flexible phone systems out there right now are the ones that are voice over IP because you can make changes at the drop of a hat. They have a lot of flexibility as far as being able to answer on a phone or on a computer or, you know, whatever you prefer. So I think that we start by looking at the communications and the voice over IP is a huge tool that I would highly encourage you to look into if you don’t already have such a system. And then even once you have that, make sure you know how to use it, because I often run into firms that have a voice over IP line, but they’re treating it just as if they were in an office with a landline and they’re not taking advantage of things like the app on your phone that will allow you to make outgoing calls without showing your cell phone number, you know, and appearing as if you’re coming from the business line. So I think those kind of tools are priceless and definitely just like any technology, let’s take the time to learn the features of the voice over IP lines so you can get the most benefit out of it. And by the way, oftentimes one of those features is text messaging, which your clients are gonna love.


Allison Williams: [00:13:15] Well, that is 1000 percent true. In fact, we have a phone system that allows for texting from a unique line specific to the the extension from the lawyer who’s actually calling out so that you can call from the office, but you can also you can also text from the office through the application. (Yeah.) And I think a lot of people, you know, they buy these, these fancy shiny objects because it sounds good. And then no one wants to learn all those gizmos and gadgets. So we just kind of stick it in a corner and say, all right, we’ll just treat it like whatever until we need it. And then times like today, in times like the world that we’re living in right now, we need it and we don’t know how to use it.


Melanie Leonard: [00:13:53] Yeah. You know, I used to say nothing creates urgency in a business owner like pregnancy because eventually you’re gonna have that baby and have to take at least some time off, even if it’s just an hour. But now I’m thinking, you know, global pandemics, they create a lot more urgency.


Allison Williams: [00:14:11] They do. Don’t they?


Melanie Leonard: [00:14:13] Absolutely. And with good reason. I mean, if we want to be able to do a lot of the same things that we were doing prior to last week, frankly, we need to make sure that we have those tools and are using them effectively. So, yeah. Whereas before it was just a really great idea to know all the features of your software and technology. Now it’s almost critical because now you’re not going to be able to rely on some of the older or less technological tools that you did in the recent past, frankly.


Allison Williams: [00:14:43] Yeah, I think that’s that’s very true. And I think now, because there is the the urgency that’s upon us to deal with our technology. I think people are going to, in the future be much more inclined to just get that training as soon as you buy the new software to make sure that everybody knows how to use it and start using it so that you can use it as you need to in events if you’re not even at yet the virtual place. Right?


Melanie Leonard: [00:15:06] Yeah. And I. I hope you’re right. I mean, I agree with you, that’s a awesome, fantastic plan, not just for my own personal reasons of growing my business. But, you know, I just I run into firms all the time that they’re just wasting that money. Right? I mean, that’s some of these tools are not cheap. And if you’re not using the features, then it’s kind of like, well, why don’t you just go back to the cheaper, you know, less techie solution if you’re going to spend the money, let’s let’s go. Let’s do it. So I’m excited for that to happen. Absolutely.


Allison Williams: [00:15:36] Yeah. Well, I think we know what the answer is. Right? We all, we all have encountered those law firms where there’s two different schools of thought because there are two different generations practicing in the law firm. Right? You’ve got the old school. And the old school says we’re going to do paper and pen. We’re going to hold everything in a physical file. And then you’ve got new school that says, look, we’ve got apps and gadgets and gizmos. Oh, my. And so the compromise is fine. We’ll buy the software. We just won’t use it.


Melanie Leonard: [00:16:04] Right. I have never phrased it as a compromise that I think you’re probably right because it’s, I studied sociology in college. And so just seeing how people interact with each other is fascinating to me.


Melanie Leonard: [00:16:17] And so to go into a firm where you have that, which is also common, you know, where you have that mixture of old school and new school. And how are they going to get along? You know, how are they going to come together in some way to make this business successful? And sometimes, as you know, it works a lot better than others and sometimes it doesn’t so much. But, yeah, it’s definitely something that needs to be addressed, which is why I think implementation is such a challenge for a lot of firms, because some people will just take it and run with it and other people are a lot more hesitant. And so to get everything, everybody on the same page. I always say it’s a lot harder to change people than it is to change software, you know? So that’s. Therein lies the challenge. And we really have to have a united front as far as what our goals are in order to all see that as being a benefit so that there can be a challenge.


Allison Williams: [00:17:06] Yeah. Well, changing people is definitely a challenge. And since we’re talking about people, let’s talk about the implementation or structuring of activity for a remote team. So I’ve heard a lot of lawyers say, you know, if I have my paralegal right outside my office, I know what she’s doing, where we’re constantly communicating back and forth. And it’s not so much a lack of trust that the person is going to work right out here. A lot of people saying, I think I have employees or I go home and eat Cheerios and never pay attention to their work. But I think there’s a lot of fear of losing control when you’re not structuring the day and you’re not listing the priorities from a verbal standpoint. So how does one start the process of creating systems for a remote team when you are at the very beginning of having a remote workplace?


Melanie Leonard: [00:17:55] Yeah. So absolutely, communication is key. And so I find that having video conferencing is a lot. It’s it just is a lot more comfortable than just a phone call because you get those non-verbal cues and, you know, you can communicate a lot more effectively and a lot more quickly. And so I would definitely recommend, even with your internal staff doing that video conferencing and there’s some great tools out there. You know, Zoom is, of course, the gold standard, which is fantastic. But there’s also free tools like Google’s hangouts, you know, which are great. So I think that the cost should not be an issue, that, that is something that I would highly recommend firms start with, is that video conferencing to be able to do that internally as well. And so once you’ve got the actual technology to enable that, use it like all the time. You know, I used to have an assistant where, a similar kind of thing. We were used to for a while, working in the office right across the desk from each other, frankly, at the time. And when we did move virtual, you know, we would turn on the video conference and I would be working on my work and she would be working on her work in her room across the state or wherever she was. And, you know, every 20 minutes, five minutes, depending on what we were talking about. You know, it would be, hey, did you do this? You know, and so we’d converse just as if she was across the desk from me.


Melanie Leonard: [00:19:15] And, you know, that’s fantastic. Like, there’s no drawback to that. If it was working for you in person, then it will probably work for you via video conference. If it was distractful to you in person because you were always talking and not focusing on other work, then it’s going to be distractful to you in video conference form. It’s really not that different. So yes, take advantage of that tool. And the other thing I think is really helpful is creating a better structure. You know, when you go into the office and you’re physically near each other. You don’t have to worry so much about, well, when are we going to meet? Well, we’re both here all day. You know, we’ll get to it sometime, you know. But when you’re not physically there, it’s a lot easier to get distracted and to not take that time to meet one on one. So a schedule. You know, let’s check in every morning at 9:00. Every, you know, after lunch at one and then every day at 4:30 before you leave, you know, or whatever your schedule is, that works for you. But definitely have those set times so that you don’t let the momentum of the day just carry you past and never reach out to the person. So definitely, I think setting up some type of schedule, even if it’s, you know, broken or changed as we go on, that’s fine. But start with something.


Allison Williams: [00:20:33] Yeah. Well, Melanie, I think that that’s a, it’s a, it’s a wonderful point that you’re talking about the idea of structure, because I think a lot of times where people are not successful at working virtual and the reason why a lot of people have resistance to it is that they know, I go home, you know. I put on the P.J.’s, I plop down in front of the TV and I bang out my brief. And I know that I get a lot more done at the office. Part of the reason why is that they’re not committing themselves to actually working at home. They’re committing themselves to being at home and happening to work. And there is a big difference there.


Melanie Leonard: [00:21:04] Yes. Yes. I always recommend to create a physical space in your house that is associated with doing work. And so whether that’s you know, if you’re fortunate enough to have a whole extra rooms, make a home office, that’s awesome. But even if you don’t, I’m talking about like, you know, a laundry room, a walk in closet like somewhere preferably that has a door. But generally, that is out of the way of other things so that you’re not constantly being distracted by other things, whether it’s the dishes sitting there, you know, not making any noise. But they sure are calling to you, or you know, the children or whatever else is in your home. There’s a lot, there can be a lot of distractions. And usually we embrace those when we’re not working. But when we’re trying to focus on work, definitely having a physical place that you can actually leave when you’re done working. So you don’t feel like you’re just working all of the time. I mean, my husband before we got married, used to have an office essentially in his bedroom. You know, half the room is the bedroom and half the room was the office where he worked from home.


Allison Williams: [00:22:08] Oh, God, that would be awful for me. I would say it’s like, no, I think I’ve been working for a full hour and a half. It’s time for a nap.


Melanie Leonard: [00:22:16] Yeah. It was not good. You you need that separation, you know. And so the more physical we can make, the separation, the better. But definitely having some type of separation, I think is very helpful to be able to turn it off. I mean, we all need to take a break. We all need to rest. It doesn’t matter how committed you are. It’s only going to benefit you to have some of that downtime. So be able to structure your physical space to accommodate that.


Allison Williams: [00:22:42] Yeah. So we’re talking a lot about what you can do, meaning the person who is the recipient of this message, typically the solo law firm owner. But if you are again managing a remote team, not just somebody who is remote in their start, but they started with you in a brick and mortar and now you’re transitioning them, what types of KPI is can be established for somebody who’s not a lawyer? Right? If you’re not just looking at billable hours, but you’re looking at production of work and they do a lot of things to facilitate your work, how can you make sure that you hold them accountable to an objective standard so that you’re not just feeling like they’re working or feeling like they’re not working?


Melanie Leonard: [00:23:19] Yeah. That’s a great point, because it is very easy, of course, to assume when you’re not constantly seeing someone at the desk down the hall, you know, that they’re not working, you know, and maybe they’re actually working twice as hard or frankly, you know, at these times when we have children at home and we’re trying to balance the children with the work and get it all done still. You know, we’re really having to condense the amount of work that we’re doing into a shorter time period. And so I think that attorneys that are in a supervisory role and are still thinking about that billable hours for their employees, that’s gonna be a real challenge for you because they might not be working at the same pace or with the same, you know, I want to say not as condensated, if you will, on getting stuff done. But, you know, the idea is that if they’re still able to accomplish the work that you need them to accomplish, that you’ve hired them to do, then, then we’re gonna count as a success, because that’s really the end goal. Right? No matter how long it took them or what tools they use within reason, of course, we want to make sure that the job gets done. So I would encourage you to start, instead of looking at time. I would encourage you to start looking at things like, you know, if they’re in charge of creating demand letters, you know how many demand letters did they get done. If they’re in charge of scheduling things, you know, how many things do they get scheduled? How many calls did they make? Look, look at the more product oriented details of what they’re doing instead of how much time did it actually take them, because some people can be very effective when they only have a little bit of time. So that’s what I would encourage you to look at.


Allison Williams: [00:25:03] Well, I think that that’s an excellent point, Melanie, especially because if you think about. When you’re at the workplace, there are so many things that you do to create the culture of an in-person workplace that are missing when you are separated. So you still want to, you still want to stay connected to the source and create communication channels like through slack or videoconferencing. But when somebody doesn’t have to have somebody walk by their office and chat them up and you don’t have to go have a conversation at the water cooler and you don’t get stuck talking about your weekends in the bathroom and you don’t know hand documents off and ask an extra two or three questions that could have been the source of one email sent in a minute and responded to in a minute, you get a lot of time back. And so I think it’s important that someone recognizing that if they have non billable employees in a brick and mortar when they transition over the virtual, they’re going to see a different type of work process. But they could still get the same amount of work done or even more work done depending on how the work is delegated to them.


Melanie Leonard: [00:26:05] Absolutely. Yeah. It’s all just in the idea of changing how you’re thinking about it. And that’s that’s hard, but it can really pay off in dividends, you know, depending on the situation.


Allison Williams: [00:26:15] Yeah. So of course, Melanie, you are always a wealth of knowledge. Melanie Leonard is the owner of Streamline Legal. And I loved having our conversation today because this is, I think, one of the most valuable, timely topics of our era in the legal field. But if anybody really wants to know how they can get assistance with getting themselves over to a virtual firm or really just making the most of the practice that they have so that they can become more efficient, how can they get a hold of you?


Melanie Leonard: [00:26:39] Absolutely. So we’re most easily found on our website. It’s w w w dot streamlined with a D at the end legal and that will take you to all of our contact information. We also have some resources that will be on that website for creating a virtual practice. So we’ve got a resource page and we’ve got a checklist that may help you in thinking about those tools that might be necessary. And then if you need further help, please feel free to reach out. We’re always happy to talk about it. We do offer a virtual office review specific to this very situation. So if you need help making sure that everything is in order, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re happy to help.


Allison Williams: [00:27:21] Of course you are. And you always are a help and you’re always a wealth of information. So, Melanie, thank you so much for being here. And I want to thank everyone for tuning in again to the Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor Podcasts. I am Allison Williams. Your Law Firm Mentor. Have a wonderful day.