Virtual Firms: Science Fiction or Reality?

Read on as Mark Landon explains why virtual firms will be a part of our work culture very soon and how they’re great for diversity and inclusion

Virtual firms may sound very science fiction, but Weightmans partner Mark Landon believes that they will be a part of our work culture very soon. Not only do virtual firms provide convenience and cost-effectiveness, but they can also better facilitate people from all backgrounds in the workplace. Read on as Mark Landon explains why virtual firms are our future and how they’re great for diversity and inclusion.

What is a virtual firm?

A truly virtual law firm will be one where effectively everyone works from home. But what happens is there will be a small suite of meeting rooms and some support functions in a particular location. So, if you want to meet with a client and you don’t want to go to that client, you can come and get support in terms of accounts, typing and so on through this small central hub.

We have an office in London and Birmingham etc but people can elect to work from home up to three times a week. It’s kind of the other way around with the virtual law firm. People are actually based at home or in some cases they may choose to work somewhere local to their home and you have a very small, central physical presence which handles the day-to-day things that lawyers have to worry about, which is terms of legal assurances and support.

Virtual firms are well within the near future

Virtual firms already are a viable option, there’s no doubt about it.

We at Weightmans are still what I call a kind of bricks and mortar traditional firm, but the difference today compared to five years ago is, we’ve got 170 people working in London and we might have 110 desks because no one has a room. It’s all open plan, and the idea is that you can work from home up to three days a week. That isn’t exactly a virtual law firm, but I think that’s the way that everyone’s going for a number of reasons which happen to also have a positive impact on diversity and inclusion.

The driver, to be frank, is that it makes commercial sense because we analyzed the usage of desks and we found that people are so often out of the office visiting clients and away with working, etc, that there was a 44% occupancy and it made no sense at all to have one desk per person.

MARK LANDON, PARTNER AT WEIGHTMANS LAW FIRM Virtual Firms: Science Fiction or Reality?

“Somebody can come in between 9:00 and 2:30, pick up the kids sort them all out, and then log on again from 7:00 to 10:00 at night because that’s what suits them”

Mark Landon, partner at Weightmans law firm

The diversity and inclusion advantage

The added advantage from a D&I perspective is that it’s greatly facilitated those who want to work flexibly home because now there is the hardware and the software to do it. These days, because we have lightweight laptops, everybody can work from home. Also, if you enable home working you don’t have to commute and it cuts down on costs. It gives you that added flexibility that you can cope with various domestic and other demands on you and get a better work/life balance. Somebody can come in between 9:00 and 2:30, pick up the kids sort them all out and then log on again from 7:00 to 10:00 at night because that’s what suits them. So, I think virtual law firms are driven first and foremost by commerce because in business you’ve got to make a profit to survive. It makes good business sense and actually, it also makes good sense from a D&I perspective.

Not for everyone, but it gives people a choice

There are people who say, “I don’t like working at home” or “I’ve got three kids under five, you try working at home.” I think I think the key is this: it gives people choice. Ultimately, at Weightmans we have people who never work at home because they don’t want to. We have people we have to remind that they have to be in two days a week because they really enjoy working at home. It’s very, in a sense, person specific.

Overcoming challenges

There are certain benefits to working in an office, in terms of collegiality. You’ve got colleagues you get along with, there’s a chance to ask questions, bounce ideas, interact with people. Now, I think that if you have 50 people working from 50 different home addresses there is a challenge in maintaining some sense of collegiality. There are management challenges, quality of service for example. It’s a lot easier to have a chat with someone and make sure everything’s okay even when they’re sitting opposite you than if you’ve actually got to coordinate meeting up with them.

You can assess a certain amount of information remotely in terms of data, hours recorded, fees generated etc, but you do have to have a think of a much more structured approach to management when your workforce is distributed around and remoted from you. But actually, it’s a very effective principle because if I don’t have the odd cost of providing office space to 50 people, what I can charge my client is reduced because it’s not as expensive to generate the service. That makes me more competitive.

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