Law Society conference looks at alternative business structures in action
The founder of the world’s first virtual law firm will be one of the speakers at a conference which will look at the impact of alternative business structures on legal services in Scotland.
Andrew Woolley set up his “alternative business structure” 14 years ago and now has 19 home-based lawyers working with clients from Kazakhstan to Singapore. All the lawyers work from home – except one, who is currently based in Egypt, enjoying beach life, in between putting in a hard day’s graft for Woolley & Co.
There is no office with a Woolley & Co. nameplate above the door, no reception with lifestyle magazines for clients to flick through as they wait to see their solicitor, and no cupboards full of paperwork and client files.
“It is an alternative business structure with small letters,” says Andrew.
Andrew started Woolley & Co. as a corporate law and private family law practice, but sold the corporate law arm some time ago, to concentrate on private client work. The majority of clients are looking for divorces or have other family law issues they need the help of a solicitors to resolve.
Andrew explains: “If you are working somewhere like Kazakhstan in the oil industry, as some of our clients are, and want to have a divorce, what do you do? Do you go through local solicitors and legal system? Or do you go online and find a solicitor who can progress your divorce while you continue to work, and deal with any of the legal decisions in the evening or weekend or at another time which suits you. Most of our clients don’t want to have to meet with their lawyer and all of them are comfortable doing transactions online.”
The 19 lawyers, and Andrew as senior partner, do the majority of administration themselves. A small amount of digital dictation keeps the work flowing smoothly when the lawyers are particularly busy and for clients who call rather than email, there is an outsourced receptionist and administration team of three who keep the Woolley & Co. website up-to-date.
“The lawyers are all very I.T. literate and we have systems which automatically bring up deadlines and important dates,” explained Andrew, who admits to typing with two fingers “very fast”.
Benefits to staff are numerous. They work from home (or anywhere in the world – Andrew is about to visit his daughter in Canada and will continue to do some work remotely while he’s there). They work flexibly, around family commitments at time to suit them and their clients. They can also take flexible holidays – that means whenever they like for as long as they like, as long as
their clients’ needs are met and they continue to manage their workload. In reality, Andrew does have to prompt his lawyers to take more holidays.
The clients mainly find out about Woolley & Co. through the firm’s two websites. A cost comparison of finding a client online compared with traditional forms of advertising makes it easy to see the attractions of advertising purely online.
“A client who finds out about us online costs us £38, whilst a client found through more traditional forms of advertising costs £600.”
And the downside to the virtual law firm?
“I’m often asked that, but you know, I’m not sure I’ve discovered it. Any hold-ups in a divorce case are because the courts do not accept emails yet, and only accept signed cheques as payment, but that is going to change the day the Legal Services Bill comes into force.
“Sometimes, when we email a firm on the other side of a divorce action, they will write back four days later, send a fax, which is picked up by our e-fax service, and send an email. Then they ask us to “correspond in the proper manner”!
Andrew Woolley will be speaking to delegates at the Law Society of Scotland’s Conference on Alternative Business Structures at Glasgow's Crowne Plaza, today (Friday, 7 May).
The keynote speaker will be Professor Stephen Mayson, Professor of Strategy and Director of the Legal Services Policy Institute at The College of Law in London. He will talk about his work on alternative business structures in England and Wales and strategies for firms for the future.
An expert panel will talk about different versions of the future of the profession. Three new lawyers will share their insights for using social media and other technology in a legal setting.
Ian Smart, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Whilst the debate about ownership of alternative business structures continues to produce widely divergent views, we are aiming to give delegates a balanced view of alternative business structures which already operate, such as Andrew’s. He has adapted his business using technology to successfully offer a legal service to clients around the world.”
7 May 2010