Focus: Virtual practice can be convenient

Mike Seto always seemed destined to run a virtual law practice.

Despite receiving his call to the bar in the late 1980s when “there was no Internet and a virtual office was not a true concept,” the Toronto-based corporate lawyer has remained on the cutting edge when it comes to technological developments in the legal world.   

In the 1990s, he worked for the Law Society of Upper Canada, where he was responsible for assessing the regulatory impact of emerging technologies, including the early days of the Internet and email.

And when he left the law society, it was to go in-house with a telecommunications startup.

“I’ve always been a bit of a tech geek to be honest,” Seto confesses.

So when he finally went into private practice on his own six years ago, Seto lived up to his early-adoption track record, becoming one of the first in a growing wave of lawyers that operate virtual practices.

“A lot of people say they practise virtually now. It means different things to different people. Defining your niche is important,” he says.

Seto’s version involves providing corporate counsel-style services as they’re needed by small- and medium-size businesses that may not have the budget to hire someone full time.

“I realized a lot of clients are not interested in a traditional downtown law office anymore. Mine prefer that I don’t have an office, because they’d much rather that I came to them,” he says.

“The practice of law is drastically changing. Clients don’t care about billable hours; they care about outcomes.”   

Seto has also built a network of lawyers and clerical support staff from around the province to whom he can farm out work for particular projects.

“If I need assistance on a deal, I can get outsourced legal assistance on a contractual basis,” he says.

“Often, the answer is to go to London or Kingston, where you can get the same calibre of expertise much cheaper than in Toronto.”

Scott Au, partner at Mehdi Au LLP, says the establishment of his firm’s virtual office was also driven by client demand, although it operates as an extension to its bricks-and-mortar outpost in Markham, Ont.

“For me, it’s about giving clients the ability to connect with us not just face to face but by lots of different means,” Au says. “Some clients still want you to have a physical presence, so we like to give them that option, too.”

Au says teleconferencing and e-signature software are crucial to serving the firm’s international clientele, which includes potential immigrants to Canada, commercial real estate investors and cross-border businesses.

The firm’s practice management software also allows clients to sign up with the firm, meet with lawyers and pay their bills, all over the Internet, while at the same time meeting the law society’s identification verification rules.  

“If you want to succeed with the current situation in the legal industry, then you need to be willing to rely on technology. The smaller nimble firms are the only ones that are actively growing,” Au says.

Monica Goyal, a technology lawyer and former engineer who has founded several legal startups, says virtual practice can be convenient for lawyers as well as their clients.

“One of the people I work with now is based in Haliburton, while I’m in Toronto. There’s no way for us to work together physically,” Goyal says.

“You have the freedom to work where you want and engage with people in different locations.”

For clients who still want to come to her, Goyal has signed up with Regus Canada, a virtual-office provider that leases out physical space for meetings when needed.

For lawyers fresh out of law school or starting their own solo practice for the first time, virtual law offices are particularly attractive, says Chatham, Ont. lawyer Daniel Whittal.  

Having grown up about 30 kilometres away in Wallaceburg, Ont., he returned to the area in 2011 after a spell at international heavyweight Paul Hastings LLP in New York and launched straight into his own practice.

“I didn’t have a specific office, so by necessity, I had to meet people at home or in private areas of cafés. I did a lot of work by email and over the phone,” he says.

Although his firm, Whittal and Company, has since transitioned to a more traditional setup with a dedicated office and several support staff, he says the firm still “operates as much as we can in a virtual setting.”

The new approach has also given him a renewed appreciation of his early days.

“We’ve got all the normal expenses that come with owning and maintaining a physical space, so sometimes I do miss those tiny overhead costs,” he says.

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