Starting Your Own Virtual Law Firm

John Wires
16 min readNov 9, 2018


This article is based on a talk I gave at the Law Society of Ontario’s annual Solo and Small Firm Conference. Learn more about me and my firm’s business law practice here.

I was called to the bar in 2011, practiced in litigation for a few years and then started my own corporate law practice.

With student debt, I started my practice offering services “virtually” out of necessity. I didn’t have the capital to take on a big lease and staff. Nor did I want to.

I wanted to practice as lean as possible, but rely heavily on software, systems and technology to try to make the need for staff and overhead as low as possible.

The theory was that if I was billing out at the same rates as my colleagues, with little to no traditional overhead, I could put the bulk of my earnings in my pocket and be a bit ahead of the game.

I am now over 5 years into running my firm. I have no desire to run a traditional firm.

When you start your own practice you quickly realize that you go from just being a lawyer, to becoming the head of marketing, technology, accounting, finance and operations. You are no longer just a lawyer, you are a business owner. It’s a big shift from practicing in a firm where you have no obligation to find new clients or manage accounting practices.

The benefit, however, is you get to use the tech, systems and processes you want to use, without it being imposed on you by an employer. It allows you to make decisions quickly and be nimble in trying out new solutions for technology and marketing.

I’m going to break the talk down in to three main sections (1) marketing your services and finding clients online; (2) automating different components of your practice; and (3) the pros and cons of operating an internet based and paperless practice. Before I get to those topics, let’s step back a bit.

Virtual Legal — What is it?

I still don’t know what the definition of a virtual lawyer is, but for me it entails practicing from where I want, when I want and how I want. It’s the freedom to work remotely without being tied to a specific geographical location or office.

I am sure most, if not all of you, work on matters when you get home from the office, or while on vacation out of the office. In that sense, I suppose we all practice virtually to some degree.

So really, I think all we are talking about two things (1) whether you have a traditional office space and staff; and (2) the degree in which you have invested in technology to offer services remotely.

I do not practice entirely “virtually”. I don’t know anyone who does. If we viewed it as a sliding scale, I’d be closer to the side of the scale that leans towards practicing virtually as opposed to having a traditional law office.

Sometimes to define something it helps to define what it isn’t. For me a virtual practice entails not operating with a lease and not having to manage staff in-person.

In my case, that means that I work from the cottage in the summer and travel a fair bit. I meet clients at their premises and I use an office space provider for boardroom meetings and temporary office space as and when I need it. From what I gather, it seems like services such as Regus and Intelligent Office are being heavily used by lawyers. It seems there are more and more offering services the same way I am, simply out of necessity.

I find that in person meetings happen less and less frequently in my practice. I actually refuse to meet with prospective clients as part of an initial consultation in-person. If I am retained, I typically find one in-person meeting as part of the engagement process is sufficient, depending on the nature of the matter.

Of course, for clients I work with frequently , I enjoy the social aspect of work, doing lunches, dinners, drinks etc.

The reality is, when I worked in a designated office downtown, most of the work I did was done via email and phone calls. Aside from being close the courthouse, it really didn’t seem necessary for me to be physically present in one office from 9–5 (or for some 8–8) each day.

I can say that without a doubt one of the hardest parts of practicing the way I do has been overcoming social norms and stigma that goes without having a traditional law office behind you. But I can assure you, that if you can get over that stigma, there are some big benefits to practicing the way I do.

To this day, I feel guilty when I am not working between the hours of 9 and 5. Yet, I find I am far more productive when I work in short bursts rather than 8 hour chucks of my time.

My advice is that if you are going to practice virtually, embrace the benefits of what that means as much as possible. Try to escape the social norms and really take in the benefits of not being tied down by time and location.

Overarching Comments

Before I get into the three topics, I have a couple caveats:

  • I am not advocating for any particular technology or process. When I mention systems and software I use, its because they work form me. They may not work for you. Everyone has their own level comfort in working with technology.
  • The single greatest piece of advice I have on the technology side is to only use the tech that you are comfortable using. Don’t let someone else tell you what technology you should be using. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. Try to avoid technology that makes you rely on someone specific if it doesn’t work or breaks down.
  • You must always put your professional obligations first, including the Rules of Professional Conduct and your duty of confidentiality.
  • Operating an online or paperless practice is not for everyone. Some areas of practice simply don’t permit it. For example, real estate and litigation are two practice areas that would be very difficult to convert. They would certainly be impossible to move to an entirely virtual model.
  • Starting an online or virtual practice is a lot easier than converting an offline traditional practice to an online/paperless one. I had the benefit of starting from scratch. I can see how converting a traditional practice would be challenging.

With that said, let’s turn to the first part of my talk, marketing and establishing an online practice.

Part 1: Marketing and Establishing an Online Presence

Past generations of lawyers took the approach that marketing legal services was not necessary. If you were a good lawyer, clients would find you and colleagues would refer you work. That is still true to a large extent today. You can generate a great client list from attending business lunches, conference, and relying on word of mouth.

Without a doubt, in the first 2–3 years, referrals and offline marketing were really the only source of business for me

I believed that no client would simply “Google” legal services, find my website ( and hire me. I thought the purpose of my firm’s website was to serve as a place for clients that were referred to me to read my bio and confirm whether they wanted to pick up the phone and call me.

However, as a lawyer that works with e-commerce and technology companies, I now know that many of my prospective clients are willing to find a lawyer online, use Google and online reviews as a means to validate whether they want to hire me (as opposed to their own referral source) and engage almost entirely online.

Over the years, the purpose of my website changed from an informational website, to a lead generation site. It is now expanding from lead generation to, in some cases, the ability to buy legal services online. I now hold the view that certain legal services can be “commoditized” and sold in the same way you buy a new t-shirt online.

While a good portion of my clients are derived from the first year of my practice where offline marketing was key, I now have a large portion of my matters coming from clients who found me entirely online. Having an effective website that brings in new client leads is a must for adding fuel to the fire and growing beyond just traditional word of mouth. It also allows me to be very selective in what files I take on.

What is clear, having a good online presence amplifies word of mouth marketing and referrals.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

I can’t talk about marketing a virtual law firm without talking at least briefly about SEO — Search Engine Optimization.

If you are a lawyer that does not have a full workload, you should have at least a basic understanding of online marketing and search engine optimization or SEO. Spending some time early in your practice getting this right will pay dividends in the future. From my perspective, learning about SEO is the single greatest investment I made to grow my firm.

We are moving towards an environment where even small firms have full time SEO and website staff. I don’t, but I certainly know lawyers who do.

Lawyers are spending big bucks on paid advertising. While paid advertising is a fast track to getting eyes on your website, if you want to put in the slow hard work over a few years like I did, you can be left with a website that generates enough new clients that paid advertising is not necessary. For me, the deeper I dive into SEO, the more fascinating it becomes, as odd as that might sound for a lawyer.

Understanding what your prospective clients are searching Google for, and how you can make yourself known to Google for that purposes, is fun for me. I know it is not for most lawyers, so here are my “Top 5 SEO Tips for Solos who Hate Marketing”.


Tip 1- Have at least one thing, preferably something niche, you are going to become the expert on under Ontario law and write about it.

You will be amazed that if you stick your head out just a little bit above the horizon and write about a niche topic, how quickly you will become the expert on that topic, especially as a lawyer. More importantly, you will be surprised at how easy it is to get to the top of niche Google rankings and have people find you online as a result.

I have an article I wrote on whim when I first started my firm. I can directly trace writing that article to a revenue stream in my firm to this day. I still have potential clients that call and say, “I read an article about [blank] and want to see if you can help me with a similar issue”. Focusing on SEO and having your business rank well with Google is such a big part of running any business today, and lawyers are no exception.

When picking keywords or topics to write about and target, ask yourself, what would a prospective client Google to find a lawyer who provides your services?

Don’t forget, the more niche the subject area, the easier it is to get noticed by Google. To help pick keywords, use the Google Keyword Tool. This tool will let you type in a keyword and it will tell you how many people search for that keyword on average each month in Ontairo.


One of the most important things to understand in getting your firm noticed online is that Google ranks where your firm shows up in search results based on how reputable your site is.

Aside from using social media referrals and Google reviews, to gauge your site’s reputation, it tries to figure out how many other websites link to your site, and how reputable the sites referring you traffic are.

This means that if you are published in the National Post and they link to your site, your search results will likely increase.

So, spend some time writing, establish an expertise and try to get published on popular sites with lots of traffic. You will be shocked at how larger media organization permit outsiders (non-staff writers) to contribute to their publications as guest writers and commentators.


It is always amazing how many times I read articles written by lawyers who seem to write for other lawyers.

If your prospective clients are other lawyers (like in-house counsel) that makes a lot of sense. If your prospective client is a technology start-up, write in a tone they understand and write with the sole purpose of providing meaningful content that will encourage them to want to pick up the phone and call you.


You are hiding from prospective clients if you have not formally registered your firm with Google. It is a simple process. Do it.

As part of the registration, subscribe to what’s called Google Local which allows you to see search results impacting your business. I get a monthly update from Google Local showing how many people found my site from Google searches, how many people asked for directions to my “virtual office” and how many people clicked on my phone number to call my office line from a Google search.


It is not enough to just get people to your website, you have to have a clear objective for what you want them to do when they get there. Start treating your website like an e-commerce website. You want potential clients to click the equivalent of a “Buy-Now” button.

If you get really sophisticated, you can start tracking conversation rates with Google Analytics. For me its how many people visits my site and take an action, like clicking a call now, or book now link for every 100 visitors to the site.

Like everything else, it is only that which is measured that matters. You could have a great site, but if you don’t know what pages or content are bringing new clients, you don’t know what marketing efforts to try to replicate as you move forward.

So, try to track your success with conversion rates and look at the analytics of your website to make informed decisions. Ask — what content are people enjoying and how can you replicate it?

Understand your website stats. Wordpress (the publishing platform I use) has a simple way to track page views and other metrics. Google Analytics takes it to another level and allows you to see reports on where people found your website. I am always amazed to see where on the web people find my site. In one instance someone posted a link to my site on Reddit in a discussion board talking about technology lawyers. I can see that about 100 people clinked on that link within the last month or so. In that sense, the web really amplifies word of mouth marketing.

It is easy to say that all these things do not matter, but when you start tracking your results and seeing what is and is not working, it allows you to make smart decisions about where to spend your time and money on future marketing efforts.

Closing Notes on SEO

Many small law firms have no value to be sold. However, if your website generates leads and converts new clients, the site itself might be more valuable than your firm when you go to retire or sell the practice.

As unfortunate as it sounds, Google determines whether you are a good lawyer by the contents of your website and the reviews people give you.

Google allows small firms to compete, for marketing purposes, with the likes of the big firms. At the time of writing, when you Google “Toronto Business Lawyer”, it is not big firms that show up first in the (unpaid) results.


I really prescribe to the idea that instead of trying to focus on tasks I can delegate, I would prefer, where possible, to automate them. This means that I don’t have to delegate the task to someone, it just gets done by some automated electronic process.

An Example of Automation: On-boarding Clients

I want to share a couple examples of those automated processes I use. The first one is the process of on-boarding new clients. I’ll give the example of a file where I would be incorporating a company as part of the engagement.

Traditionally, client intake forms may be filled out manually, you would sit with a client and sign a retainer agreement at an initial meeting. That information would then find its way into a practice management system, like Clio or PC Law, clerks would open new files in accounting systems, open new folders on network drives, retainer agreements would be drawn up etc.

Here is how I have changed that process in working with clients online.

A prospective clients lands on my website or they call me and I redirect them to a website where they will:

  • Fill out an online incorporation form (
  • The data they provide includes (1) all of the director and shareholder information; (2) a desired corporate name and information about the corporation; and (3) client identification information I need to put together an engagement agreement.
  • That data gets automatically pulled from my website and a new matter is automatically created in Clio, my practice management software.
  • As soon as the form on my website is filled out, the matter fields inside Clio are automatically populated with the client’s information. Including for example, who the directors, shareholders are. That information is recorded and stored in Clio. This means that neither I, nor an assistant has to record the information and type it into our systems.
  • At the same time, the moment the form is submitted to my website, an automated email response goes out to the person who submitted the form, from my email address. This means that the client gets an acknowledgement that we have their information and are looking at it right away. It helps keep a client engaged right from the get go. The automated email is sent out directly from my own email account. So the client can see they will be working with me right away and not a clerk.
  • The automated email says, in short, thanks for filling out the form, it provides our fees for the services they specified and that in a moment they will receive an email from an e-signature software provider to review and e-sign my engagement agreement.
  • When they are completing the engagement agreement, they are prompted to enter their credit card information. I do not store or have access to the card information, it is all collected via a third party payment provider. I can login and bill their card once work is complete. This has really helped with collection issues. It also avoids slowing the process down by having to wait for a retainer cheque to be sent to me before we begin work.
  • Inside Clio, now that I have the client’s matter information automatically provided, I have different processes I can run on that data. In the incorporation file example, I can automatically generate the company’s organizational resolutions with the new company’s name, directors, shareholders etc. Again, this means that no clerk needs to type out this information, it is all done automatically by the systems in place.
  • We then use electronic minute books, as opposed to hard copy minute book in most cases.

With all of the client matter information submitted to Clio, I can automatically generate Word and .pdf documents. In a matter of minutes I have all the relevant documents prepared and ready to go for the client to sign.

Clio’s document automation functions are also really helpful for creating standard form letters and memos. So, for example, as part of the incorporation process, we would automatically generate a memo to the client explaining the incorporation process and next steps following the company being incorporated.

A Second Example of Automation: Scheduling

When I first started my own practice, I had a lot of trouble controlling my schedule. I found that I was continually interrupted by client phone calls and new client inquiries.

I now block off every morning from 8 am — 1 pm to just focus on doing actual billable work. I leave my calendar open in the afternoons for people to book calls and meetings with me.

To automate the process in which clients and prospects can contact me I use software called Schedule Once. Its the best $50 I have spent to help me be more productive with my time.

There are a bunch of different online scheduling tools, but ScheduleOnce syncs with my own calendaring software. It allows a client to go to my website, click on a date and time I am available and schedule a call with me. I have it set so that my mornings are all automatically booked off.

I get an email for each request and if it’s a call I want to accept, I click accept. The client gets an automated email confirming the call with a calendar invite and my calendar gets updated with the call details. There is no need for an assistant to update my calendar or any emails back and forth trying to find the time that works for both of us.

When I have times that I do not want to be bothered, I just go into my own calendar software, book off time and nobody can schedule or request that time for calls or meetings with me.


The Pros

One of the biggest benefits to operating a virtual practice, being paperless and having technology in place to work remotely is that it allows you to expand your market. You can seamlessly offer services to people in more remote parts of the province that otherwise would not necessarily have access to your services. This can be a big benefit on the issue of access to justice.

My favorite part, however, is keeping expenses incredibly low. In operating virtually you can avoid expensive multi-year leases and filling offices with staff. This leads to the freedom to dictate when and where you work.

The Cons

There are significant downsides to operating virtually as well.

Some clients may not be comfortable working under a virtual legal arrangement or comfortable using the technology you use.

You need to be more careful about confidentiality and security if you are working in different places. LawPro has some good resources on electronic security, but never use public Wifi networks and consider using two-factor authentication for your systems.

Certain practice areas just will not work with a virtual practice. For example, it’s not for litigation or real estate counsel .

Lastly, you lose out on the work environment, water cooler chats and daily lunches you benefit from when working for firm (although depending on your nature, that may also be considered a pro). It becomes more important to continue to foster relationships with other lawyer by going to social events, conferences and meetups. You need people around you to bounce ideas off of and engage with. So make sure you remain involved in professional networks, drinks events etc.

Wrap Up.

So to wrap up, there are some amazing benefits to having a primarily virtual legal practice. For me it was largely cost driven initially. Now I am so hooked on it, I have no desire to operate a traditional practice.

If you can set your ego aside and accept that you don’t have the power of a Bay St. office tower and fine art supporting your reputation, I believe the lifestyle benefits far outweigh the cons.