The Counselor: How Rachel Rodgers Built Her Virtual Legal Practice

42% of female attorneys leave their careers for some period of time. This young attorney caused a commotion in the legal world when she took her practice virtual.

Rachel Rodgers, 31, is a young mother and an attorney. She is barred to practice law in New York and New Jersey--but she lives in South Dakota with her husband and one year-old daughter. She services clients living everywhere from Bangladesh and Costa Rica to California and Florida. She has never recorded a "billable hour" and she doesn't take appointments after 4 pm--that's family time. Rodgers is not exactly what comes to mind when we think of the life of a young attorney.

In 2010, one year out of law school, Rodgers turned down three job offers to open her own online practice. "I knew that my husband's job could require us to move from the New York-New Jersey area where I was barred to practice", she says. "I wanted kids," she adds, "and I saw what balancing professional life and motherhood was like from watching a close family member struggle to do it. I knew I didn't want that, I did not want to be the cliche lawyer who's always working and barely has time for his/her kid."

Armed with an old Blackberry, the laptop she purchased for law school, and $300 ("which mostly went to cover malpractice insurance"), Rodgers started her own virtual legal practice. Less than 3 years later, she has the ability to turn down clients and has expanded her team to four people--and she's hiring more. Even with her second child on the way, she has no plans to slow down.

Rodgers made a commotion in the legal world by being one of the first young attorneys to successfully run a virtual law firm. Then, on the advice of her mentor, Pam Slim, she established a consultancy to help others do the same. Rodgers' way of practicing law may help to solve a problem that has plagued the legal profession for a long time.

Retention of women in the legal profession has been an issue for years. Some 42 percent of female lawyers leave their career for a period of time, versus 37 percent of all female professionals. And more often than not, female associates (who make up about 45% of the associate workforce) leave large law practices too early to earn partnership positions (only 19% of partners are women).

Two main reasons why women leave the legal profession and large law practices are the challenges (and sometimes discrimination) that women face in a male dominated profession, and the desire to start families while working in an industry that often does not provide a healthy work/life balance.

Rodgers believes how she practices can help women, and other attorneys looking for a balanced lifestyle, to remain in the legal game and in their careers. "When I had my daughter the transition was seamless, the first year that my daughter was home with me I was able to do work with her in the play pen right beside me." The ability to be mobile or remote, "makes the law as a profession much more accessible, much more diverse and it makes it so that women don't leave when they become mothers or want to start a family," says Rodgers. "Mobile and web based technology is absolutely key to running my practice." And Rodgers now helps other female attorneys go mobile by sharing with them the tools she uses and lessons she has learned about building a practice rooted in those technologies:

Client Communications and Documents

Rodgers handles the majority of her client communications and documents with Total Attorney, a cloud-based service that allows for secure communication document storage and mobile access to files. Because she handles sensitive information, Rodgers stresses that whatever system a virtual lawyer uses to handle privileged communications and documents online should have a high level of security. Total Attorney uses high-grade encryption to protect communications and information.

Marketing and Networking

Rodgers doesn't buy ads--she uses Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and e-mail to connect with others and promote her business. She also uses InfusionSoft, a software that allows her to automate some of her social interactions and e-mail communications. Early on, Rodger identified her network--young entrepreneurs--and built her practice around them, marketing herself as a lawyer for the "Generation Y Entrepreneur".

"I started following other people who were doing similar things or had similar philosophies," she says. Those online connections led to invitations to write guest posts for other law related blogs, which helped her gain more attention. "That's how I was able to start to attract a steady flow of clients."

Finances

Rodgers uses Outright--which she refers to as "Mint for businesses"--to access information about her business finances from her mobile phone. Business owners are able to connect their business accounts to Outright, which then imports sales, expense transactions, organizes data into IRS- approved tax categories, and tracks profits and losses.

By being able to keep her expenses for things like day-to-day accounting low and online, Rodgers is able to grow the type of law firm that can survive in a digital market. "I saw other virtual law firms start with $20,000 to set up their practice and not succeed--I started off with $300," Rodgers points out. "It's about low overhead, maximizing the profit, passing on those savings to the client, and being super convenient for people to work with you."

The "rise of the virtual lawyer" has not come without protest. Rodgers has had her fair share of critics. Many have placed into question whether the way she practices is in a violation of legal ethics rules that require attorneys to be barred in the states in which they practice. While Rodgers was living in Arizona (servicing clients outside of the state) someone reported her to the State Bar of Arizona, claiming she was practicing law in Arizona. The State Bar of Arizona dismissed the ethical claims against Rodgers, and her practice has not been deemed unethical by any other state.

"A lot of people are naysayers, and say this [a virtual law firm] is a dumb idea and will pass. But, I don't think so. Everyone is online, that's where the people are," she says.

Although the legal profession is not known for embracing innovation, "the entire legal landscape has changed, we need to change with it," says Rodgers. And, some larger organizations like Axiom, and Clearspire are flourishing by providing virtual legal services and creating new ideas about what it means to practice law.

Rodgers has no regrets. "You feel empowered to create a lifestyle that works for you, because that's really what we all want in the end. We want to have work that makes us happy, that is meaningful, and that brings in a good income--but allows us to do the other important things."


As a part of the Mobilizing series, we will be hosting Twitter chats (next one to be held next Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 7:30 pm EST), networking in our Facebook group and continuing the conversation at live salon events in New York City. Join in the conversation! And, if you know a woman who is mobilizing we would like to hear from you. Tell us about her here.

[Image: Flickr user Deburca]

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33 Comments

  • NadineNBone

    Congratulations for this feature, Rachel! And thank you for sharing your experience with us. It's definitely interesting to discover the tools you choose to run your business as well as your motivation for going virtual.

    I only met you once but I was relieved to see that you do "get" young women entrepreneurs. You have a fresh and modern approach to law practice that most definitely feels empowering and advancing.

    Danielle, this article made me want to come back to check out the rest of the series!

    Best,

    -Nadine

  • Brian Tannebaum

    Danielle, I'm confused. I've never seen a professional journalist defend the subject of their story. Are you and Rachel friends, colleagues, or are you truly an independant journalist writing a story? Because if so, here's what I'd do, contact the South Dakota Bar and ask whether Rachel having an office there, home or otherwise, violates their Bar Rules. I see that issue mentioned here but nothing in response except enough dancing to ask for a DJ.

  • Danielle

    Thanks for your feedback, Brian! But, no I've never worked with Rachel, nor had I ever spoken to her prior to my interview of her. Just giving facts here, no defense. And I think it's important as a report to respond to good questions. If I have stated something untrue, I'd love to discuss and have any advice about possible corrections. But, I do find what Rachel is doing to be interesting and I find the issues surrounding it to be interesting as well.

  • Jordan Rushie

    "Danielle J. Powell ‏@DanielleJenene
    24 Apr
    @AnastasiaAshman Yes, @Rachrodgersesq is a superstar! I used to be a lawyer...trust me. #FCmobilize"

    https://twitter.com/DanielleJe...

    I can't say I've ever seen a journalist promote a subject of theirs as a "superstar" on Twitter.

    Are you marketing for Rachel? Or reporting about her? It sure feels like the former...

  • Danielle

    Great then! Although I would be tempted to know what exactly your brand of "fascination" is. Smile. 

     If you have any ideas about other stories relating to mobile technology and law please let me know. We're always looking for new ideas and different prospectives. 

  • Mark Lyon

    What does she use all of this tech to do?  What sort of law does she practice? How does she work within existing ethics rules?  I'm far more curious about those things than her accounting package.

  • Danielle

    Great questions Mark! Well, Rachel is an transactional attorney that focuses her practice on counseling young entrepreneurs. During my interview with her she talked about drafting and reviewing contracts, assisting with incorporation, and providing other kinds of legal advice that would benefit young business owners. If you have more questions about Rachel's practice, feel free to reach out to her, I believe her contact information is on her website. Thanks for chiming in!

  • Mark Lyon

    Thanks Danielle.  It was interesting to see the flurry of comments from Rachel and yourself as you responded to the comments here.  

    I'm concerned that Rachel (and those practicing with her in jurisdictions other than where they are licensed) may be creating severe problems for themselves if they do eventually decide to get licensed in those states.  I, for instance, moved to New York and didn't see an immediate need to start paying additional bar dues. I was already licensed in MS, DC and before the USPTO. My work as a document reviewer didn't require me to be licensed in NY (I was being supervised by attorneys licensed in NY and elsewhere) and the only private clients I attempted to work with were patent clients. I took the bar, though, and then sat on finishing my character and fitness until my results were set to expire... at which point NY gave me six kinds of trouble about my "unauthorized practice" in the state.  Eventually they gave in (and I am now licensed there), but I wouldn't wish the hassle on anyone.

    I don't think any of the commenters here who bring up the potential ethical landmines are mean spirited; they're rightly concerned about the risks.  It would be very interesting to see a piece that considers those issues in the context of this type of practice, instead of a puff piece about software and marketing.

  • Danielle

    I'd love to write that type of piece, unfortunately that's simply not the focus of the series we're producing. We're really looking at how mobile technology is being used to transform industries and change the way we think about work. And of course, we could have ignored the ethical issues all together, but I do think it is important to say, "hey there is criticism here and there are issues". But, a piece only about those issues perhaps would be best suited for a legal publication or maybe a series on innovation in the legal field! Maybe one day we'll do that. 

    Honestly, as a licensed attorney (who doesn't practice) I am interested to see where this story goes in say 10 years. Will ethics rules be amended, and will those amendment include of preclude this way of practicing. So far in states (like NJ) where ethics rules have been amended recently it seems as though more room is being made for the type of practice Rachel has. 

  • Turk

    "I knew that my husband's job could require us to move from the New York-New Jersey area where I was barred to practice", she says.

    I've been practicing law in NY over 25 years and have never seen anyone use that phrase "barred to practice." Whatever skills or talents she may have, they don't appear to revolve around knowledge of the local courts.

  • Danielle

    I apologize if that's not clear, word count you know :) Rachel is a transactional attorney she counsels young business owners, drafts contracts, and handles other business transactions from a legal stand point. I hope that answers your questions! Personally, I used to be a litigator, in the courtroom everyday, so I really find Rachel's work to be interesting and was intrigued to come across it after I had left the law. It's definitely more feasible to be a "mobile" transactional attorney. Glad Rachel figured out how. I'll stick to being a writer. 

  • Rachel Rodgers

    My clients don't seem to have trouble figuring that out, Andrew. Perhaps the fact that you don't understand indicates that you are not an ideal client. 

  • Jordan Rushie

    "to answer your question, my bona fide office is my home office in South Dakota and that does comply with the NJ bona fide office rule."

    Right. I am not saying you are violating NJ's bona fide office rule.

    But how do you have a bona fide law office in South Dakota if you are not licensed in that state? 

    Under South Dakota RPC 5.5, "A lawyer who is not admitted to practice in this jurisdiction shall not: (1)except as authorized by these Rules or other law, establish an office". According to the comment, "a lawyer who is not admitted to practice generally in this jurisdiction violates paragraph (b) if the lawyer establishes an office..."

    Comment 15 states unequivocally: "a lawyer who is admitted to practice law in another jurisdiction and who establishes an office or other systematic or continuous presence in this jurisdiction must become admitted to practice law generally in this jurisdiction."

    You either have an office, or you don't. But it can't be both.

    And if you aren't licensed in South Dakota, it looks like your office can't be there. Yet you are telling the New Jersey bar that you maintain a bona fide office in South Dakota.

    What are you telling the South Dakota bar?

    I'm not trying to be mean, but are you sure you thought this cunning plan all the way through?