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."
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]