Lawyers don’t actually choose to have mobile offices…do they?
If that thought crossed your mind as you were reading the title of this article, perhaps you’re picturing a frazzled criminal lawyer rushing around with documents flying everywhere, late for court because he’s working out of his disorganized car. Or perhaps you’re reading this from the comfort of an ergonomically correct chair with a view of your well-stocked firm library and wondering why anyone would ever leave the comfort of a traditional practice. But with all the technological advances in the last 20 years, running a mobile legal practice is easier than ever. People are doing it, and they’re doing it in exciting ways.
Ian Perry is a young lawyer who started his career at a reputable boutique litigation firm two years ago. He liked them, and they liked him. However, he had a strong desire to create something of his own:
I always had an interest in the start-up world and often wondered why that spirit of ingenuity hardly found its way into the legal industry. As I began to actually practice as a lawyer, my desire to build my own firm grew into an obsession for two reasons. One, I knew it would allow me to expand on what ultimately would have been a narrow scope of practice had I remained an associate. Two, and more importantly, it would provide the blank slate I needed to build a different kind of law firm from the ground up.
That’s how Newton’s Legal came to be. Like other lawyers starting out on their own, Ian never marketed himself as someone with a “mobile practice”, but has since embraced the de facto mobile nature of his work. He’s still dressed the same way he would at his old firm and handles clients with the same level of professionalism and dedication. Only now, he also carries around a tablet and a high quality portable scanner. He is focused on growth, but is currently satisfied with splitting his time between his downtown condo, his clients’ offices, and occasionally, his mentor’s office as well. Currently, Ian’s practice is focused on real estate, small business development, and estate planning.
Unlike Ian, Paul Lomic is an intellectual property and social media lawyer who started Lomic Law after many years in the industry. His ability to move away from his established practice at Gowlings was in large part due to the technology-orientated nature of his work. Popular tools such as cloud-based Dropbox for Business for storage, Clio for practice management, and Slack for communication make streamlining his practice very easy. After spending a month working from home and establishing some parameters for how he wanted to move forward, Paul now has two satellite work spaces, including one at 100 King West, and one at Workplace One at Queen and Bathurst. “I think people now are comfortable with the idea of lawyers having virtual and/or mobile offices,” Paul explains. “Sometimes my clients are law firms, so my office will become their office. I meet clients where it is most convenient for them. I am happy to go wherever works best, and I think they appreciate that.” When asked whether the lack of a fixed office had any impact on client retention, he shrugged it off, stating, “At the end of the day, you are hiring the lawyer. You are not hiring their space. There are very few files [especially in the intellectual property world] that actually require a large physical space.”
The flexible nature of virtual workplaces also provides ample opportunity for hybrid or multidisciplinary careers. Rebecca Lockwood was called to the Ontario Bar this past September and is currently a member of the Jackman, Nazami & Associates team. She interned with the immigration and refugee law firm during her 2L legal intensive program and stayed for her articles. But she’s certainly not being groomed to be a regular employee. At the time of writing this article, Rebecca is boarding a plane to India, where her fiancé is doing his PhD research. The plan for this period will be to take her practice online and focus on the solicitor side of immigration law while travelling to and from India as a sole practitioner in association with her existing firm. Alongside this dynamic practice, Rebecca is also the president and founder of Grammatika International, a program that has already helped hundreds of young professionals learn legal English. Moving her workspace online gives her the ability to do all of this at once. “I don’t envision having an entirely online legal practice forever, as I would like to continue in litigation, which will be difficult for obvious reasons while travelling and spending a significant amount of time abroad, she says. “For these next few years, however, having a mobile, online practice is ideal for me.”
Finally, there’s also the mobile law firm. Cognition LLP is the brainchild of partners Joe Milstone and Rubsun Ho, who have become industry leaders with their award-winning alternative business model. After just a peek inside their physical workspace, you’ll quickly realize that there’s not much in the realm of “typical” around here. The open-concept basement suite has puppies running around on patches of artificial turf and brightly coloured carpets, treadmill desks, and a giant brass bell for anyone inclined to make an announcement. But most of their 50+ lawyers don’t physically work in this office, and rely instead on a sophisticated internal communication network and twice-a-year retreats to keep the national practice strong. Morgan Borins is a lawyer by training but currently acts as “Director of Disruption” for the firm. Marketing, business development, new product development, and spokesperson duties are the main elements of his job description. Morgan attributes a lot of Cognition’s success to having captured a space in the market that didn’t previously exist. “It’s really the work that in-house departments would not historically send out to law firms and would try to manage internally, or [the work] that companies without in-house lawyers were just managing with their in-house resources while struggling to keep pace.” Cognition also markets themselves not as legal service providers, but as “legal solutions architects”. This means clients don’t just call in when they have a problem, but instead, proactively work with Cognition to address their legal pain points in tandem with their broader business goals and needs. Cognition’s lawyers could be anywhere and work on any schedule, but together, the firm is unified and strong.
Of course, mobile practices come with challenges.
Ian and Paul discuss confidentiality as a being one of a few concerns. Ian’s opinion is that many of the processes and record keeping requirements mandated by the Law Society encourage a bloated practice, explaining, “The difficulty is that many of these rules make sense and should not be done away with entirely. Obviously, the desire to implement modern procedures cannot and should not be done at the expense of the client’s confidentiality. It is sometimes difficult to strike a balance without resorting to the more “old-fashioned” procedures.”
In practice, it is simply a matter of being aware of any potential technological benefits and risks. Though Paul normally doesn’t think twice about uploading documents to the Cloud, he never stores highly sensitive information in his Dropbox folders. Paul also advises in his retainer letter that client information is stored in the Cloud.
Over-reliance on technology can also lead to unintended consequences. Rebecca explains, “While I am tech-savvy enough to take my practice online, a lot of my potential clients may not be, and this may become an access to justice issue. I recognize that having an almost entirely online practice will mean I’m unable to serve a certain segment of people who either don’t have access to computers or are not very familiar with technology.”
She also cites the lack of personal interaction and collaboration as being another downside of running a mobile practice. “While the mobile option is a dream in terms of individual flexibility,” Rebecca says, “for some it may mean they lack the team environment that can be so helpful and encouraging. I’m lucky that I have a well-established firm to work in association with and a great group of people to turn to when I’m stuck.”
And while some in the industry may be excited to learn of these new practices, not all may understand. At Cognition, Morgan shares his frustrations, stating, “Overall, people still don't fully understand our model or what we are about. A few years ago, people would say that they never heard of us. Now, people often say, ‘I know who you are and I know you do things differently, but I don’t get it,’ or ‘Oh yeah, you’re the firm that does _____’. But the idea that they form is usually partially right, a little bit right, or completely wrong”.
As for the future of the mobile office?
Mobile is not for everyone. However, mobile doesn’t necessarily equate to “lack of physical workplace” either. Whether it’s allowing for more flexible work-from-home arrangements or testing out new technologies designed for efficiency, it’s clear that many firms are embracing some aspects of the mobile philosophy. Rebecca thinks that this trend is catching on in a bigger way with a newer generation of lawyers, perhaps out of necessity. “The economy is such that fewer firms are hiring associates while our student debt loads are higher than ever, so many of us need to go into sole practice”, she says. “Mobile offices are cheaper to run, especially if you have to start out on your own. Another part of the reason for the mobile trend amongst a younger generation is comfort with technology, having grown up with it in a more complete sense. I think this next generation of lawyers are at the cusp of the ‘lean law’ approach, in large part because we are more familiar with technology. Overall, I think people are finally looking at the legal profession a bit more creatively and demanding more flexibility from it, whether for family reasons, economical necessity or desire for a more manageable lifestyle.”
Paul agrees, stating, “the legal economy has put huge pressure on fees and it’s going to be people who are able to respond that are going to survive”. In fact, Paul admits that, should the economy change again, he may even consider a more traditional practice. However, he doesn’t see that as the end goal. Growing his practice in the way he is doing allows him to grow it organically, and respond with great flexibility to any new developments that may come his way.
Going mobile can mean different things to different people, but overall, it’s describing a technology-forward and efficient practice. And it’s a trend that people are choosing to participate in not out of necessity, but for strategic reasons. “Of course, there’s always going to be a need for ‘bet the farm’ deals or litigation,” Morgan says. “If Kraft is getting sued by Skippy, they are going to need that kind of firm, at least for the next little while. But that’s 0.1 percent of what goes on in the world.” As for the other 99.9%, adding a little agility and flexibility to your practice might be something to consider.
About the Author
Annie Chu runs her own mobile practice at anniechulaw.com as well as the culinary travel website Chu on This at chuonthis.ca.