Decentralised legal practices for which lawyers work remotely have seen a 38% rise in the numbers of lawyers working at them in the past year.
In late 2020, 1,355 lawyers worked for such virtual firms, a number that has risen to 1,875 by autumn of 2021. In 2019, 1,272 worked for such firms.
Hazlewoods, which carried out the research, said the increase reflected the dramatic shift towards hybrid and flexible working arrangements.
The accountancy/consulting company defined a “virtual” law firm as a decentralised legal practice where lawyers worked remotely and used shared services provided by a central hub. The law firms themselves may not define themselves as “virtual” but allow a significant number of their lawyers to work where they choose. Most variants of virtual law firms, it said, engaged self-employed lawyers. They run central services responsible for functions such as compliance, accounting and administration.
According to Hazlewoods, Covid-19 has led to a shift in attitudes towards working arrangements, with lawyers now more likely to have experience of an improved work-life balance. Virtual law firms tended to offer lawyers more freedom over the work they took on, while being able to carry out their work remotely, it stated.
Virtual law firms have benefited from the greater acceptance of virtual meetings, enabling clients to manage their legal affairs from anywhere in the world without a loss of service quality.
They also have lower overheads, as they pay for far less office space. Greater profit margins resulted from this, which could be used to put into lawyers’ wages.
Hazlewoods said some of the biggest increases in the number of lawyers over the last year were at Nexa Law (105 lawyers in 2021, 54 in 2020); Keystone (456, up from 350); and Setfords (up from about 190 to 350 in 2021).
Nexa Law is a Shropshire-based virtual firm but also has a WeWork office in London. Keystone is a top 100 firm with an address in Chancery Lane and meeting rooms in Newcastle, Bristol and Leeds. Its Chancery Lane, London, office houses its 50 strong support team (administration, compliance, finance, marketing etc.), 10 meeting rooms and space for lawyers to work permanently or to hot-desk.
James Knight, CEO and Founder at Keystone Law, said: “The physical interaction that our lawyers have with each other, with clients and with their business contacts is very real, but it is fair to say that we do have long corridors.”
He added: “Keystone’s modus operandi is so attractive to the modern lawyer because it delivers all the support and facilities that they require to do their job, whilst combining that with a level of freedom and flexibility that conventional firms do not afford. It enables them to focus on what they do best and enjoy most: being lawyers, as well as freeing them from a world of management responsibilities, commuting and office politics.”
Setfords, is a top 200 firm which has offices in Guildford and Chancery Lane plus locations in numerous smaller towns across the UK.
Jon Cartwright, partner at Hazlewoods, said: “The virtual law firm model has been given an unexpected boost by Covid, even with more traditional firms returning to their offices. It’s clear that what was once considered an outlier in the legal industry is quickly becoming part of the mainstream.”
He added: “Many clients have accepted that liaising virtually works just as well as in-person meetings. Some may say the benefits are even greater as it offers both lawyers and their clients much needed flexibility while reducing the need for travel and office space.”