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Virtual firms part of changing legal landscape

The future legal marketplace will include more virtual law practices and general counsel with greater influence on a company's business direction, according to a new report by staffing agency Robert Half Legal.

Financial pressures also will force law firms to take more of a team approach to servicing a client and focus on specialized industries, rather than practice areas.

“In a highly competitive environment, law firms are altering their management strategies to improve service levels and win new business," said Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal. "This includes adopting corporate finance and operations practices to achieve greater efficiencies, narrowing the scope of their work and deploying specialized teams composed of partners, associates and paralegals to better support clients.”

With most companies looking to trim their legal costs, law firms are looking for more efficient and cost-effective ways to deliver their services.

One way is through virtual law practices, which eliminates the need for brick-and-mortar facilities. This has been on the rise with the availability of mobile applications and cloud-computing platforms.

Firms that can't go completely mobile are allowing their staff members to work from home, i.e. telecommute, several days a week.

"Client pressure is driving firms to be more efficient," said Kim Campion, division director for Robert Half Legal in San Diego.

Thirty-nine percent of lawyers surveyed said the number of law firm employees who work remotely increased in the past 12 months. Sixteen percent of respondents said their law firm plans to redesign its office space to accommodate an increasingly mobile workforce.

"There's certainly a generation gap in technology," Campion said. "Newer and technology-savvy attorneys are more efficient on their own."

Legal organizations, however, need to formalize a telecommuting policy as managing off-site employees becomes a challenge. They also need to be concerned about ensuring the security and confidentiality of information when attorneys work remotely.

Firms also have created non-associate and non-partner positions to help reduce costs. These attorneys can perform the same work as their colleagues, but at a reduced rate and for fewer hours.

The Robert Half report also found that many organizations are restructuring their legal support teams to decrease costs while maintaining or even improving service.

Legal secretaries work in pools, helping a group of attorneys, rather than assigning one secretary to several attorneys. A hybrid legal secretary/paralegal position also is becoming popular.

“By allocating work that doesn’t require a licensed lawyer to paralegals, firms are able to offer clients more cost-effective services,” Volkert said.

The role of general counsel is changing as well. With increasing regulations and compliance complexities, a company's general counsel moves from traditional legal adviser to corporate strategist, according to the report.

Of those surveyed, 31 percent said corporate governance/regulatory issues will have the biggest impact on the practice of law in the next five years; 22 percent said privacy and data security will have the largest effect.

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