Law firms in North Jersey are going digital, jettisoning brick-and-mortar offices and establishing virtual law firms that bring services to clients from a distance using technological forms of communication, instead of traditional face-to-face meetings.
Virtual law firms allow lawyers who run them to be more flexible. These attorneys do most of their work through phone calls, emails, video chatting and other technologies. Oftentimes, these lawyers do much of their work from home — allowing them to drastically reduce overhead costs traditionally associated with having a physical law firm, such as rent or paying a secretary, and also enables a better work-life balance.
“It may be a growing trend,” said Timothy Anderson, a lawyer in Red Bank and also chairman of the Solo & Small Firm Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association. “It really gives lawyers a way to be more efficient and practice anywhere.”
There are no statistics as to how many virtual law firms there are in the state. According to data from two State of the Attorney Disciplinary System Reports, there were 95,807 lawyers in New Jersey at the end of 2014 and 93,757 by the end of 2013. Despite the growing number of Garden State lawyers, 28,937 law offices reported they had physical locations in the state in 2014, unchanged from the year before, according to the reports.
Virtual offices were made possible in 2013 after the state Supreme Court Professional Responsibility Rules Committee approved amendments to the state’s “bona fide office” rule, which had essentially required all lawyers to have a brick-and-mortar office. The 2013 ruling said “an attorney need not have a fixed physical location.”
Critics of virtual firms argued that a virtual office means clients wouldn’t have immediate access to their lawyers. But lawyers with virtual offices say having one doesn’t mean you don’t meet your clients face-to-face. Tech-savvy lawyers who go virtual usually rent out shared office spaces. These spaces, which could cost as low as $100 per month, include access to Wi-Fi, an escape from long-term leases and a formal location for lawyers to meet clients.
Christopher Dunn, a former defense attorney in Paterson who lives in Scotch Plains, said he set up shop at C.E.O. Executive Suites, a suite-rental building in Scotch Plains, after deciding his daily commute to work was taking too much time away from his 10-month-old baby.
“If not for the change [in the bona-fide office rule], I’m not sure if I would have been able to start up,” said Dunn, who began running his own virtual practice in the spring.
Dunn, who practices criminal law, said he mostly works from home and is usually traveling to meet with clients, sometimes at their homes. When he does have to meet with clients at C.E.O. Executive Suites, he said the office is so close to home that he can walk. Because of the lack of traditional overhead costs, Dunn said he has also been able to shave significant dollars off of his clients’ hourly rates.
Though virtual firms are typically small-run operations, going virtual can also help firms, such as Rubenstein Business Law in Saddle Brook, operate at a geographically larger scale. The firm has locations in Saddle Brook, Chicago and Lakeland, Fla., and is run by David Rubenstein out of Chicago. This firm did not wish to comment on its operations.
There is no specific type of lawyer turning to virtual firms either. These lawyers could be recent law school graduates or seasoned lawyers “looking toward the idea to save money and keep overhead [costs] as low as possible,” said Anderson.
According to Matthew Stoloff, who is of counsel to Florham Park-based Jardim Meisner & Susser P.C., virtual firms create more opportunities for new attorneys. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts job growth for lawyers for the 10-year period ending 2022 to be about 10 percent, roughly as fast as the average for all occupations.
“The job market for new attorneys has been challenging for the last several years,” said Stoloff in an email. “And, virtual law offices give newly admitted attorneys the opportunity to develop their lawyering and business skills without worrying about high overhead costs.”