How to Launch an Australian Virtual Law Firm: Insights from Nest Legal

Laura Vickers Nest LegalIt all started with a mum at a kitchen table in her Ugg boots, wondering whether legal services could be provided in a different way. Craving flexibility, a schedule that would accommodate her young family and the ability to tap into a specific target market, Victoria-based Laura Vickers decided to set up one of Australia’s first virtual law firms, Nest Legal.

What followed was the establishment of a successful online service business model, a boutique virtual law firm and an innovation award to boot. We chatted with Laura to explore her journey into the virtual world and the strategies she employed to get things up and running from the kitchen table.

The start of change

Sitting in the foyer of her tax agent’s office with a screaming baby made Laura think about how law could be done differently. Why couldn’t she access services without her child in tow? What about offering services outside business hours?

Having worked as a principal solicitor with the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, and after helping friends with legal matters for many years, Laura sat at the kitchen table at midnight while her son slept and decided there would be clients just like her who would love to access online legal services at odd hours, including other working mums and dads, clients in remote locations and busy professionals who need to access legal advice in an affordable, flexible way.

Launch and lift-off: A boutique approach

Launching Nest Legal in December 2013, Laura did most of her research and groundwork from scratch by looking at US-based online models and working from there.

“There were very few precedents available to guide me in the right direction,” says Laura. “Firstly, we decided to provide advice and assistance in a few discrete areas of the law, such as wills and conveyancing and everyday consumer disputes before the Civil and Administrative Tribunal and a range of courts. For example, often our clients want more than a post-office will kit, but the cost of obtaining expensive estate-planning legal services is prohibitive. We offer the chance to bridge that gap in the market.”

Other offerings include dispute strategy sessions, where clients pay for a one-hour phone or Skype consultation, after-hours online video conferencing and basic document drafting in the field of disputes. Operating mostly on a legal fixed-fee basis, Laura made her pricing structure transparent – she says she is always annoyed when she cannot access fee information online in other areas of life.

“Many people told me this was a bad business decision, but I like my clients to know what they are likely to pay up front. Some clients choose to pay by the hour where the scope of the project is not clear at the outset, but that is largely a particular client’s choice.”

Tools and technologies

In terms of setting up systems and processes, Laura looked at a range of products to help her achieve efficient client service delivery. “I really had to navigate the path myself, but there are so many systems and products out there which are available to those starting out in this way.”

Laura uses Skype or FaceTime to chat with clients, document management software, YouCanBook.Me as a calendar booking system, Google Drive to share documents with her law clerks, FormSite to allow clients to provide instructions via a secure web form, Xero for accounting, all of which are inexpensive tools for small market players.

With the advent of online conveyancing, Nest Legal will soon be a completely paperless law office, which provides for less overheads and a leaner operation.

Marketing and strategy

Winning the APAC Legal Innovation Index Award for an “innovative approach to client service that perfectly services its target market”, it’s clear that Laura has made time for her law firm’s marketing.

Focused on her target market, busy clients seeking affordable legal advice, Laura has created a law firm website for current clients to pass on as a reference to perspective clients and to ensure she’s competitively placed in online search. She also runs monthly advice sessions at a GP medical practice, and Facebook is also central to her business development strategy. Laura says she receives many word-of-mouth referrals through Facebook. “Most of my target market spend considerable time on Facebook as a social media forum, so it makes sense to market in that space.”

Work-life balance

Balancing family and work is never easy. However, Laura says she responds to emails within 24 hours and finds her workload manageable.

“I conference clients at 7 or 8pm most nights, and I work via email throughout the week. Working in this way means I have the chance to take my son to the zoo and not miss out on those moments. Though it does mean there’s less of a line between work and home life, however at least we still get to go to the zoo!”

In her journey through the online world, Laura has also come across many supportive women with similar work-life balance aspirations who have guided her along the way. “I have found all of the women I have dealt with have been supportive and not at all competitive, which has made the process a lot easier.”

Lessons learnt

Laura is often contacted by other working mothers and women wanting to follow a similar path. She would like to see a system where those people could obtain simple advice on how to start their own virtual law firm, as well as assistance in dealing with the ethical, accounting and regulatory requirements of the relevant Law Society.

“Many women call me and want to know how to navigate the ethical guidelines which exist when setting up a practice in this way. It would be great to see some assistance and developments in that regard.”

Laura’s business mentor and inspiration? Dennis Paphitis, her former boss and the founder of successful Australian skincare company Aesop, where Laura worked during her university years.

“Dennis taught me the power of resilience and how to ignore the naysayers”. From a working mum at the kitchen table in her Ugg boots to a successful online practice owner armed with a legal innovation award – there isn’t a naysayer in sight.

Source
1.       Interview with Laura Vickers, Nest Legal, Tuesday 3 November 2014.

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