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.
But regardless of whether she’s wearing pajamas or a suit, Ridgefield, Conn.-based Berger Legal senior counsel Suzie Scanlon embraces virtual lawyering with unbridled enthusiasm. One recent evening, she was one of four panelists at Fordham University’s two-hour program, "The Impact of Technology on the Future of Law Firms."
Scanlon works for Berger Legal’s virtual firm, and with Berger, co-founded a second firm, bliss lawyers, where she serves as managing director. Berger Legal’s 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, litigation, marketing compliance, mergers and acquisitions, private equity, real estate, startups and startup financing, and technology transactions. Representative clients include Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, Pfizer and Scholastic.
A 1995 Fordham law graduate, Scanlon’s practice covers commercial transactions and licensing in the technology industry. Her credentials include brief stints at two New York firms — Sullivan & Cromwell and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. She also worked at the National Association of Securities Dealers.
At the virtual firm, Scanlon said, "typically, the work is overflow from large financial institutions." Clients are attracted to Berger Law’s "lower fees, alternative fee arrangements, and flexibility," she said. General counsel at major corporations are increasingly interested in working with virtual firms because the GCs are under pressure to reduce legal spending — and they are unwilling to pay firms to train new lawyers. Additionally, the GCs face increasing pressure to demonstrate value from their outside counsel.
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 alternative fee arrangements 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 their money is speed. Typically, "we turn around projects in three hours, or 24 hours," Scanlon said. "And we work collaboratively with the [client] … I like to think of myself as an aspirin. I try to reduce general counsel’s pain."
For the virtual lawyers, the advantages go far beyond avoiding corporate attire, she said. Other obvious perks include 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 worked from home even for a short time, it’s no surprise what Scanlon cites as the biggest challenges: dogs, doorbells and screaming children during conference calls. But increasingly, she observed, clients aren’t bothered by the occasional interruption. Remedies for cabin fever include joining a gym; taking clients out to lunch; and staying active in the community, or in law school and bar groups.
Security and ethics must be carefully addressed. Secure storage, encrypted data, and passwords protecting confidential client data on cellphones and computers are essential. Conflicts checks are a must.
Scanlon’s technology includes a dedicated server to protect client confidentiality. She regularly uses Skype for communication; an Apple iPad; and a smartphone that is password-protected. She is a heavy user of LinkedIn, and told audience members that LinkedIn even generated new business when a lawyer working for an existing client bank moved to a bank not using Berger Legal. Because Scanlon received a LinkedIn alert that the lawyer had switched firms, she was able to reach out to congratulate him about the career move, and ultimately won his banks’ business as well.
In addition to Scanlon’s Berger Law business card, she also carries her card for bliss lawyers (Yes, lower case.)
Scanlon and Berger co-founded bliss in June 2011, and it functions primarily as a staffing shop. The concept: Corporate law departments need "loaner" lawyers who can fill in for full-time lawyers who, for example, are on maternity/paternity leave, or an extended vacation or illness. The lawyers, often from Berger Legal, work at the corporation’s brick-and-mortar facilities.
But what often happens, just like with a traditional "temp agency," is the key to the bliss: Inevitably, some of the "loaners" go permanent, and settle in to the in-house department. So guess what? They are familiar with Berger Legal’s operations, and often go full circle by recommending the virtual firm to their new employer for overflow work. Sums up Scanlon: "Former employees become our clients!"•