Pandemic practice lessons from a Jamaican solo practitioner who went virtual early
Nadine C. Atkinson-Flowers.
“I think I will have to work from my car,” I thought, when I decided to start my Jamaican solo practice years ago.
When beginning my solo practice, I did all that experts suggested: I notified other attorneys of my plans, asked for referrals, lined up a few clients and an office as well. When my initial office arrangement fell through at the last minute, I literally thought I’d have to work from my car.
Instead, another office space opportunity arose in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, and I was able to spend almost four years in chambers with two great senior lawyers who provided mentorship as well as with an exceptional support staff.
Prior to practicing as a solo practitioner, I had worked as a prosecutor for several years in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Jamaica. In my new practice, I forayed into criminal law and also took on some civil matters as well.
I loved the fast pace of solo practice, the cut and thrust of court room battles as well as the more benign aspects of hours of research and preparation. However, I didn’t love the uncertainty of a paycheck, but I survived.
Fast-forward to a few years later: I migrated to the U.S. and decided to continue with my practice after admission to the bar, now focusing on immigration. I had some practical issues finding office space, so I decided to launch a virtual practice. I have been doing it ever since, sort of.
Up until COVID-19, whenever I was asked where my office was, I kind of stuttered, hemmed and hawed and then said that I had a virtual practice. Attorneys’ looks would vary, often saying something like “That’s nice” and “How does that really work?”
As someone who began a virtual practice long before COVID-19 changed the practice of law for everyone, I thought I might share some tips on how to manage a successful virtual practice, as well as offer insights into how COVID-19 has actually helped to positively reshape virtual practices.
Expectation setting and adapting
Clients’ reactions pre- and post-COVID-19 have been interesting to compare. Initially, people expected an office setting, but frankly, I was more worried about it than they were. Once a referral was made or a potential client contacted me using some other method, I learned to set expectations for them upfront.
The spiel ended up being along these lines: A virtual practice means there is no traditional office, there is an office for document service, mail and occasional meetings, but generally, transactions and meetings are held using various pieces of technology.
I would rattle off options for videoconferencing, the telephone, meeting at conference rooms or other ad hoc spaces—and once, in the case of a sick client who urgently needed a consultation at the client’s home. I soon realized that clients really only needed to be confident that they will be able to find their lawyer, and clients often found it useful when I was available at unconventional hours or on weekends.
I found myself constantly adapting my meeting formats, as videoconferencing proved challenging for many clients who didn’t have the software—some didn’t have any; some didn’t have a laptop or a desktop; many used mainly their smartphones.
Having accounted for all of these scenarios, by the time COVID-19 rolled around in March of 2020, I had Zoomed, Skyped, FaceTimed, WhatsApped, texted, used Google Hangouts, LinkedIn and a few others. The clients often dictated the process based on their access.
I learned a few lessons from this, and perhaps the one that stands out most is that the client’s comfort will drive the legal relationship, especially as it relates to the use of technology. I recently added another new communication tool to my arsenal: Facebook Messenger. As I write this, I am trying—and struggling—to figure out some of its finer points, but the client meeting is in a few days, so there is still time.
Managing documentation and evidence
With so many clients relying on their smartphones, there is often a technology gap to be bridged with documentation exchanges. My practice is mainly focused on U.S. immigration and legal consultations, along with related Jamaican law cases. For my immigration practice, I focus on asylum, naturalization and family-based green cards.
One big challenge that always comes up is getting my clients to understand the need for evidence to prove their case. I give suggestions as to what kinds of proof are useful: a letter, a newspaper article based on a date they mentioned, a receipt from a hotel to prove they were there. Clients tend to think simply saying it is enough.
Clearly, a lot of documentation gets exchanged in an immigration case between lawyers and clients. It turns out that many clients figure that taking a picture of a document with their smartphones is good enough to submit as part of their official evidence. Unfortunately, when such documents are printed, invariably the quality is poor, or in worst case scenarios, their fingers or another object is in the picture.
It becomes a little awkward to explain that a poor-quality document never reflects well on the client (or the attorney!). Illegibility might ensue in a rejection, or if the client is lucky, a request for re-submission, which can mean additional fees. Worse yet, clients who didn’t use email or rarely used it would miss documents sent to them.
I’d have to resort to sending documents by mail, which sometimes resulted in them getting lost or submitted late. I suggest putting mailing documentation with prestamped envelopes for quicker returns, a tip I picked up from a colleague in Miami.
How to connect virtually
Interface with other attorneys is often limited for a virtual lawyer. You have to fight virtual communication fatigue and make deliberate attempts to meet new colleagues, get advice and network by attending CLEs or chapter conferences and so on. As we have discovered, there are many opportunities to connect virtually now, such as Zoom happy hours, legal webinars and even virtual exercise classes.
These are good opportunities in which to share virtual best practices and learnings as the pandemic drags on. I even find myself stuttering less over the term “virtual practice” when describing my practice to other lawyers.
There are a few key things I would suggest lawyers embrace in a virtual practice. Ask clients what technology they have access to and what they are comfortable using. We also have to give clients the feeling of confidence that we are accessible and also accountable for their cases.
Speaking of accountability, it’s key to ensure client security on these platforms. So, I try to remember to use the security tools on the platforms to close meetings, so only invited guests can enter. For other platforms that have passwords/codes, I send those to clients beforehand.
It remains to be seen how many sole practitioners or firms will remain in this virtual world, but one thing is truly clear. Going forward, the virtual legal practice has come into the mainstream and pushing it back into the shadows will be impossible.
Nadine C. Atkinson-Flowers is admitted in Missouri and Jamaica. She practices virtually and in real time and focuses on U.S. immigration and Jamaican law with a focus on the intersection of Jamaican law and U.S. immigration law. Her email address is [email protected]
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