Pull Together a Virtual Team Plan

Do things really change?  Today’s solo lawyer is not much different from yesteryear’s.  A characteristic of most solo lawyers (“legal rebel”?) over the years is their strong desire to retain their fierce independence.

One thing that has changed is that today’s legal rebel does recognize that the power of the Internet means that they no longer have to be alone.  Courtesy of new collaborative tools, legal rebels can bring  people together into virtual teams and practice in ways never before possible as a solo.

As a solo, you can build your own virtual practice using virtual teams.   Along the way you can collaborate with a new and wider office team – by bringing in assistants, bookkeepers, IT support, accountants and others on an as-needed basis to meet your support needs.

You can also collaborate with those outside the office: experts, contract staff, litigation support personnel or providers, legal research, second chair lawyer assistance and the like can all be brought in remotely to your office to assist on your cases.  This allows you to contract with all kinds of different staff with different skill sets on a short-term basis rather than full-time.  You now can achieve a scalable office!

This is particularly important for a solo as your physical space most probably is limited and can only accommodate a few people.  However if your office walls are virtual, you have a virtually limitless capacity to expand.  These days you can even outsource your office administration!

Continuing on this outsourcing theme, courtesy of having a virtual office, you can still maintain that low overhead that is characteristic of a solo.  Building a virtual team means that all of you can cut your commuting times down to a minimum as your team members are accessing your office remotely – typically from their homes.  All of you can work in your pajamas!

A virtual office is a largely paperless office.   It is also a mobile office since all you need is an Internet connection to work.

There is no question that a virtual office must be concerned with security and privacy issues (you don’t want your virtual legal assistant to be working from the same computer that her kids use…).  There are a host of legal, ethical and technical issues as well.

You can be more responsive to your clients if you can assemble a virtual team quickly to ramp up for a big case or closing.  It has been shown that virtual team members (as well as yourself) can achieve a better work/life balance from adopting this way of working/commuting! As a solo with a virtual office, you can now tap into previously inaccessible talent pools (however you risk losing your solo status!)

You have to start with the creation of the virtual team.  To really build the team, you need to build relationships and trust in your virtual team members. This may be people you know and have worked with before or they may be someone you’ve heard about. Either way, it’s imperative that you build these relationships as part of building the team.

After you’ve established the relationships, you’ll need to determine what platform the virtual team will use to collaborate. This may be an existing server system or a virtual system in the cloud. Whatever the platform, you’ll need to make sure everyone is comfortable with the technology, the security, and access.

As with any law-related project, you’ll also need to define the service-level goals and reporting mechanisms, such as time and reporting sheets  You need to determine who signs onto the project and what is the scope of services they will provide. This may be the most difficult part of the virtual project, but once you have this established (a strong “trusting relationship” and service expectations), you can easily estimate the time and costs associated with each virtual project.

If the project is yours, you’ll need to develop the leadership and management skills necessary to govern a virtual team effectively and efficiently. This is not all that difficult from a standard law practice – the only difference is that you don’t work face-to-face and if you tend to get frustrated because someone on your virtual team doesn’t answer the phone or email immediately, you’ll need to tender that frustration. In a lot of cases, virtual team members may be working on multiple projects simultaneously and you’ll need to take that into consideration.

As the client project moves along, you’ll have to knit the various parts together: keep the disparate parts of the team informed, involved and engaged.  Minimize any conflict and foster a climate of cooperation and collaboration. This is very important, especially if your virtual team members are working on other projects. The “squeaky wheel” can also be virtual.

The first time you collaborate virtually on a new platform will be an obvious learning curve, not only for you, but also for your virtual team. Everyone will need to get comfortable with the platform in order to use the tools effectively. Also keep in mind that while you may use a particular collaborative platform, other members of your team may use a different platform and it may take a little while to get used to each way of doing things.

If you run into difficulties, don’t forget non-online ways of remaining engaged! Use some old technology and pick up the phone and call your virtual team members. Sometimes a periodic quick conference call can save a lot of hassle and frustration.

Perhaps, just perhaps, as ol’Bob has said, the times they are a’changing…

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