The first thing many lawyers think of when someone starts talking about a "virtual firm" is bathrobes. Walking from your bedroom to your home office, encased in terrycloth, has become an iconic stereotype of lawyers who work from home. So much so that Garry Berger, co-founder and managing director at Berger Legal, sent holiday gifts of plush bathrobes, monogrammed with the firm name, to all 17 lawyers (15 of whom are women).
But regardless of whether she's wearing pajamas or a suit, Ridgefield, Conn.-based senior counsel Suzie Scanlon embraces virtual lawyering with unbridled enthusiasm. Monday evening Scanlon was one of four panelists at Fordham University's two-hour program, "The Impact of Technology on the Future of Law Firms." The program was the third in a series, "The Business and Ethics of Managing a 21st Century Law Firm," held at the school's Lincoln Center campus. Approximately 50 people attended, about an even mix of students and established professionals. It was co-sponsored by the school's Stein Center for Law and Ethics, and Corporate Law Center. (See "'Assassins' Aim to Reinvent Law" for LTN's report on the other speakers.)
Scanlon works for Berger Legal's virtual firm, and with Berger, co-founded a second firm, bliss lawyers, where she serves as managing director. We'll first discuss Berger Legal its website explains that it is "an elite boutique law firm" that hires only "senior level professionals. ... We are able to pass on to our clients low hourly rates due to significant savings on overhead and a staffing philosophy that avoids junior attorneys," it says. Berger Legal targets clients who need "to maximize value and efficiency," and all of the lawyers previously worked with large New York City firms or major corporations," the website continues.
The firm covers 10 practice areas: corporate, employment/HR, intellectual property and licensing, litigation, marketing compliance, mergers and acquisitions, private equity, real estate, startups and startup financing, and technology transactions. Representative clients: Credit Suisse; Depository Trust & Clearing Corp.; Morgan Stanley; Pfizer; Scholastic; Starwood Hotels & Resorts; Thomson Reuters; Siemens Corp.; TripAdvisor to name a few.
A 1995 Fordham law graduate, Scanlon's practice covers commercial transactions and licensing in the technology industry. Her credentials include very brief stints at Sullivan & Cromwell (one year), and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (summer associate). She also worked at the National Association of Securities Dealers.
"Typically, the work is overflow from large financial institutions," Scanlon told the rapt audience. The clients are attracted to Berger Law because of its "lower fees, alternative fee arrangements, and flexibility," she said. General counsel at major corporations are increasingly interested in working with virtual firms because they are under pressure to lower legal spending and they are unwilling to pay firms to train new lawyers. Additionally, they face increasing pressure to demonstrate value from their outside counsel. The economics can be pretty stunning; Scanlon said that her firm's rates are usually half what Big Law firms charge for the same services. And because the firm can be nimble, they can handle complicated AFAs that Big Law firms would have difficulty accommodating. Most of Scanlon's clients pay by the assignment, not by hour. With virtual law offices, corporations aren't paying for fancy art work, car services, or incidental fees, she said.
What they get for the money is speed. Typically, "we turn around projects in three hours, or 24 hours," she said. "And we work collaboratively with the firm. ... I like to think of myself as an aspirin. I try to reduce general counsel's pain."
For the lawyers, the advantages go far beyond avoiding corporate attire, she said. She acknowledged that her prior experience helps her keep clients happy. "If it wasn't for Big Law, I wouldn't know how to practice Big Law." She also appreciates the obvious perks: no commute, so her work is more "green," and there are less office politics. But she acknowledges that some of the positives can also be negatives, such as limited "face time with colleagues."
For anyone who has ever telecommuted or worked from home even for a short stint, it's no surprise what Scanlon cites as the biggest challenge: dogs, doorbells, and screaming children during conference calls. (There's only so long you can lock the kids, nanny, and dog in the basement, she joked.) But increasingly, she observed, hiring companies aren't bothered by the occasional interruptions. Remedies for cabin fever include everything from joining a gym; taking clients out to lunch; staying active in the community, your law school and bar groups.
Security and ethics must be carefully addressed for a successful relationship with your client. Secure storage, encrypted data, and passwords protecting confidential client data on cellphones and computers are essential. Conflicts checks are a must.