You utilized this platform as a way of entering into a mentoring relationship. How did the Virtual Law Office benefit the relationship from both the mentor’s and mentee’s perspective?
I attended the CFA Solo Practitioner and Small Law Firm conference in 2008. Blackberries with email were cutting edge then. I was using an HTC Smart phone at that time. Paul McLaughlin, the former Law Society Practice Management advisor, was a speaker and his topic was the operation of a paperless office. As that had been one of the original goals of my VLO, to reduce or eliminate paper, I had made a number of comments during the seminar about what I was doing in my firm, and through my training company Re-Group Collaboration Inc. toward that goal.
During the break Marc Delacruz of Grande Prairie introduced himself and asked me a question which stopped me in my tracks. “How” he asked, “did a person know what to say to prospective clients when they called and left messages?” I was curious. He was young, shy and very embarrassed. Was this a student? A lay person? “No” replied Marc. He was 27. He had been admitted to the Bar in Manitoba after articling in a big firm where he had done primarily research. He was strongly attracted to family law practice, but admitted that he didn’t know where, or how, to start. He had relocated to Alberta with his family, his brother having set up a medical clinic in Grande Prairie. Marc’s family was originally from the Phillippines and his parents had worked hard to see all of their children educated as professionals.
Marc had bought a building for his new practice, was finishing the office construction – and his line of credit was getting quickly maxed. He needed to start taking clients. In Grande Prairie there was an urgent need for family law counsel. A mere sign in his window with his phone number started the calls coming. But on that day, exposing his vulnerability to me, he stated that he hadn’t yet returned the calls. He was too paralyzed with fear of the unknown and the immensity of what he had embarked upon, to know what he was supposed to say to people, not as Marc, the person, but as Marc, the lawyer.
Now, lest you think that I am exaggerating, I’ll save the inside story for Marc who now, three years later, is thriving in family law practice and will also be participating in this blog.
I was born to mother people – some think it is a weakness – some think it is a strength. Being too busy to worry about that question and with my usual motherly approach, I invited Marc back to my office and showed him what I had been developing which would allow me to work remotely in family law practice. I invited him to sit in on a client interview – with the client’s consent – invited him to come to a taxation where I was acting as counsel for the client taxing another lawyer’s accounts – with the client’s consent. I told him about my training company Re-Group Collaboration Inc., (which is a legal information and personal development company.) Marc was reluctant to take my time, but with each question asked, it became clearer that he needed a mentor who was willing to invest significant time in his development. There were no mentors in Grande Prairie that he felt he could approach, given he might have those in the community who were practicing family law on the other side of files before long. Many of his needs could not be met by short sessions with the Practice Advisor. He needed to know how to set up and run his law practice and how to “be confident” in family law. Hand holding was required – and the knowledge that no question was “too stupid” to be asked, nor would I ever judge his inexperience with anything other than “ok, better teach him that” responses.
Thus was born our “Virtual Relationship.” My relationship with my IT Guru, Casey, was so successful by then that I thought a similar service might transfer to a mentorship relationship between Marc and me – and Casey – and Desiree – and Denise – and Bruce – and Danijela – and Cheryl…. Marc needed to experience what a successful small law firm could look like. His only experience was a big firm. He knew how to manage a medical practice, but the fiscal realities of private law practice were significantly different. He needed not only to “rent a mom” – he needed to “rent a firm”, and since I was now succeeding in long distance marriage, what would be the difference in long distance mentorship? There seemed to be the same communications needs, the same distance challenges, the same remote access issues – just different content.
Marc and I contracted on the basis that we would meet regularly by phone. He would have unlimited email and phone support from me. My firm resources would be made available to him, including all the support staff to teach him the ins and outs of their roles within the firm and he would have a “Virtual Desktop” within the firm – a virtual portal through which he would be able, under license, to use my precedents and other intellectual property to meet his needs as he built his firm. “Rent a Solicitor” discussions resulted in our entering into our paid mentorship contract for a year, with Marc “affiliating” with my firm while getting up to speed in the basics of running a family law firm. He attended in person at the firm for training in office systems and management; attended and observed collaborative meetings, went to court with me and we spent regular enjoyable hours by phone and video conferencing meeting his needs for senior counsel input as his caseload grew. During the second year I provided after-care, watching with pride as Delacruz Law Office grew from strength to strength. I drove up to Grande Prairie for Marc’s grand opening, along with Maritza Verdun-Jones, now an associate. It was wonderful to meet Marc’s supportive family, beaming with pride at their lawyer son and brother, head of his own firm. What a celebration day. I felt that I had acquired another son.
From my perspective, working with Marc helped me develop many of the training materials intended for use in my legal education company. Primarily though, I gained a colleague who will make a solid contribution to family law in his community. Everyone in my law firm feels great pride in Marc’s accomplishments. We built community and helped to facilitate increased access to justice in Grande Prairie. From his perspective, Marc gained his footing in the profession – and his confidence. Doing it was about meeting a need and using “Creative thinking 101″ to use resources in new ways.
Virtual law practice became more than just about me and my husband’s commute, or Maritza’s work-life balance. Through the mentorship process and Marc’s feedback about the experience, ideas flowed to me about how to further expand and refine my VLO model in daily practice.
Is there an experience working within the Virtual Law Office that is particularly memorable?
It was a Saturday and I was in my Edmonton location; Marc had a client in his office in Grande Prairie who needed child support advice immediately about an unusually difficult situation. Using virtual resources, I video-conferenced Marc and his client into my desktop monitor, created a child support screen, gave visual control of the screen to Marc while I described what they were seeing through a speaker phone. Marc’s client was delighted with the information – and with her lawyer’s ability to answer a tough question with help from Edmonton.
It was exciting to think of the possibilities that lay ahead for remote work and facilitating access to justice to a rural public.
Stayed tuned for Part 4: Implementing Aspects of the VLO into your Practice