Is the handwriting on the wall for the virtual lawyer?

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Published on 6/26/06

When a technology company decides technology is the problem and not the answer, it's worth listening.

Hewlett-Packard recently did just that. The computer and electronics giant, a pioneer of telecommuting, announced that it was ending the practice for most, if not all, of its 1,000-person information technology staff around the world. Staff members will now report to one of 25 offices nearest their homes. In some cases, this may mean a move of thousands of miles.

The reason: Apparently, enough questionable practices surfaced to compel the new division chief, formerly with two major high-tech companies, to re-examine and eliminate the practice.

What does this mean for lawyers? Perhaps an indication that the ever-increasing interest in telecommuting by lawyers in large firms, and the ever-expanding use of technology by solo practitioners to extend their communication reach, may both have limits.

In a firm of any size, the attractions of telecommuting center around greater time flexibility, but some lawyers are typically more equal than others when the firm decides to accept a telecommuting arrangement. Senior lawyers and transactional lawyers generally get more flexibility than associates and litigators.

Client reactions and client service always are voiced as primary concerns, as they should be. If an important client expects the personal touch in an office visit, no amount of time efficiency can or should outweigh it.

Personal touch matters within the firm, too. Lawyers who are together physically in an office environment share a camaraderie that shapes the development of a firm culture.

Many factors come into play: the exchange of ideas, the guidance, the learning, the education of one lawyer by another. These are vital to a successful law firm, and to business judgment.

As a former law firm partner and COO, I can walk through an unfamiliar firm and get a sense of whether they're making money or not, whether they're serving the client well or not, even if I don't know a thing about their practice. That comes from years of working in a physical setting, not a virtual one.

Another telecommuting limit - lawyers are not entitled to work from home when a physical office space is available. If office space is no longer used for at least 80 percent of the time, someone else must either use the space while the telecommuting attorney is absent or the firm will eat the expense and thus incur a greater cost for off-site operations.

The telecommuting limits are different for solos. Technology has conspired with traditional attitudes to make many solo practitioners believe they truly can go it alone.

The flexibility offered by voice-mail, e-mail and other electronic tools is real, but it can become dangerous when used as a replacement for direct client contact. If we are perceived as inaccessible, fees become an issue and client complaints are a problem.

The nature of one's practice and the intention of the lawyer to be "super-connected" to respond quickly are essential to answering the visibility question.

Clients may be more inclined to flexibility about where a solo practices if they have the assurance that they can always get in touch when they need to.

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