The Solicitors’ Chambers: The Virtual Law Firm as a Reality

March 1, 2000

Neil Davidson is the Head of Chambers at The Solicitors’Chambers Peterborough and the Chair of The Solicitors’ Chambers Association.He is in private practice doing niche Trades Description Act and Legally AidedPublic Law Child Care work (most recently having represented the Bramleys, knownas the runaway foster parents). He can be contacted on 01733 892237 or

Change arises not from a response to need but as a response to availabletechnology. Leonardo da Vinci identified the need for many of his inventions.The flying machine, the tank and, perhaps most noticeably, the helicopter wereall drafted out and if they had worked would have changed the world. The needwas there, the ideas were there but the technology wasn’t available foranother 300 years.

The wish to work freed from office constraints is not new. I am an admirer ofthe Roman Empire, which faced and overcame many of the problems that trouble ustoday (with the possible exception of configuring a modem). Rome was however, atvarious times, ruled quite successfully from overseas, even if it was at theexpense of enormous manpower with a constant stream of couriers being rowedabout in galleys powered by slaves. The rate of transfer, we might say, was slowbut there was considerable bandwidth (you can get a lot of wax tablets on agalley).

Today’s technology has moved on and now the combination of the comingavailability of unmetered access coupled with advanced remote working programs -not least the thin client protocols – mean that substantial change isinevitable.

‘Now and in England’

Many have espoused the paperless office as the future but the years havepassed without it becoming a reality. The Virtual Solicitors’ Chambers howeveris a giant step in that direction for lawyers.

The developments at the Solicitors’ Chambers arose from a personal need tobalance a lifestyle with a practice in Peterborough and a home in the NorthYorkshire Moors. As an non-technocrat who could (just about) follow the thinkingbehind Leonardo’s machines, it took a long time to realise that technology hadmoved on from the 286 Goldstars with DOS Microsoft Works which had kept thepaper churning out of the Chambers since its inception. The reality is now thatwith modems, ISDN, and scanners there was little that could not be done fromhome. Closely following that technological rethink, the thought occurred thatthis might also be the way out of the Catch 22 which we were suffering at theChambers.

The History of Solicitors’ Chambers

Lest any are unfamiliar with The Solicitors’ Chambers in theory andpractice I will attempt to give some history. A group of solicitors looselybased on Peterborough realised that there was a conflict between the economicmanagement of a small legal practice and the wish to continue to provide aone-to-one service based on the individual solicitor/client relationship. To runa practice in the world of frozen remuneration coupled with rising overheads andinflation required turning to the assembly-line law-factory approach where legalservices are supplied by the lowest qualified (and hence cheapest) staffpossible. That inevitably meant the loss of the personal relationship where theclient gets to know and trust an individual solicitor. To square this circle andenable the individualist to survive the only thing that could go was overheads.

The Solicitors’ Chambers is set up to ape barristers’ chambers andmanages to turn in overhead/fee income ratios which would make many a partnerstare. The Chambers has provided office accommodation and back officesecretarial and telephone support to sole practitioners for almost the last tenyears. Overheads were cut by critical examination of the trimmings of thetraditional high street office. We have also produced a model of legal practicewhich escapes employer/employee and inter-partner difficulties (by the simpleapproach of having neither employees nor partners). The working environment, ifcheapskate and basic, is at least a positive, supportive and friendly one. Sincethen Solicitors’ Chambers have been replicated elsewhere and there is now aSolicitors’ Chambers Association.

The Chambers and Catch 22

The physical Chambers is the victim of its own success in that it has nowexpanded to fill all available space. Further expansion is essential if we areto meet the challenges of legal aid changes (contracting, conditional fees etc).If you don’t expand you don’t get a contract or if you get a contract on thefirst round there is no guarantee you will keep it. Of course, if you do expandand get one of the short-term contracts you may not keep a contract and will bebankrupted by the increased overheads you took on to be large enough to get acontract in the first place. In any event we feel that this is not the time toget involved in increased overheads and heavy lease commitments as the futureis, to put it mildly, a little uncertain.

The Virtual Solicitors Chambers

To return from my digression, once it was obvious that I could do a fairmeasure of my work from North Yorkshire then it was equally clear that othersolicitors could work from the Peterborough base without ever having to darkenits doors. We could increase the Chambers Membership, thereby increasing thenumber of shoulders to share the overheads and at the same time increase thetotal market share of the Chambers as a group, making it a viable bidder for agroup block contract on behalf of members who wished to do legal aid work.Although the Legal Aid Board has made it clear that it is not interested inconsortium bids for block contracts, special provisions in the contractdocumentation allow Solicitors’ Chambers to bid as a group. In view of the lowoverheads I expect a Chambers bid to be competitive even against the factory lawfirm whilst still providing a personal service to the client.

The Leonardo Effect

Despite all the blandishments of ISDN, NT4, SQL and the latest Officeproducts, I have at times felt that getting efficient remote access in operationis like trying to launch the Leonardo flying machine. The joints creak and theinformation gets caught in the contra-flows and thermals of the informationhighway. I will already have impressed the more knowledgeable reader with myignorance. My attempts to achieve a steep learning curve have been frustrated bythe constant moving of the mountaintop. What has kept me going is my convictionthat the mountaintop is achievable and worth the climb.

The model we are working on is an office base that works as a paperworkreceiver and store and a paperwork generator. Correspondence (e-mails, faxesetc) are received at the Chambers and scanned onto the electronic file. The hardcopy will be stored in pristine order in banks of filing cabinets as we lawyersare far from being paper-free. We need our paper, our signatures and ouroriginals, as this is the evidential framework upon which we rely. We howeverneed paper only as evidence and generally we can work with electronic imagesjust as well. The electronic files at the Chambers are set up to match the paperfiles exactly and allow access to any document the solicitor needs in a fractionof the time it takes to locate a paper file.

Work is then carried out with the solicitor wherever he or she1may be – be it Birmingham or the Bahamas. Voice dictation files are sentdown-line and processed by the solicitors Personal Assistant (PA) in theChambers. The PA may act as a clerk for a number of Members of Chambers who areworking remotely and is expected to develop a personal relationship with thesolicitor and his or her clients, taking messages and acting as the joint keeperwith the solicitor of the (electronic) diary.

But I Need an Office!

Working virtually does not mean a lack of personal contact either with theclient or with fellow professionals. Many at the small firm end are committed tothose who are distressed and/or frightened at finding themselves enmeshed in thelegal process. Personal contact in many circumstances is essential. It is notenvisaged that the office will totally disappear. It is simply envisaged thatthe offices, cleared of ‘back office’ staff, will operate as consultingrooms, servicing many more lawyers with a consequent saving in cost. Memberswill only use consulting rooms when need arises and they will be tailored tomeet that need so that there is a minimum of wasted resource.

How Far Have We Got?

We are currently piloting the systems at Peterborough. So far we have provedwhat is possible. The next step is expansion to enable the offer of virtual lawpractice to a large number of solicitors and small firms. This means far moreresources in capital and in expertise than I or other current (cheapskate!)members possess.

Why Bother?

The developers of the Virtual Solicitors Chambers believe passionately thatthe essential relationship that makes the legal practice worthwhile is thesolicitor/client relationship and that this is best met by a personal humanrelationship between a client and a lawyer he or she trusts. It was to preservethis relationship that the Solicitors’ Chambers movement was founded and themove to the virtual world is intended to achieve the same end. It is only,however, by providing the technological resources of the largest of firms tothose at the smallest end and by lifting the administrative burden from theindividual lawyer that the lawyer will be freed to serve his client, addressinghis legal problems.

Quite apart from the inspirational bit, Solicitors Chambers is a thoroughlynice way to work. Being independent and free to organise your time to meet yourown work and personal needs brings freedom from the pressures both of fellowpartners and of employees. The relationship between Chambers members involves aform of camaraderie the equal of which I have not experienced elsewhere inprivate practice. To be quite selfish about it, private practice as a SolicitorsChambers sole practitioner is something I really enjoy and which I am determinedto preserve.

Once the concept is accepted fully then the possibilities are almost withoutlimit. On-line case management, supervision, LAQUAS organisation of files andaccounts are part of the initial developments. Further developments includeon-line library training, banking and much more.

Wither Now Fair Solicitors?

The Solicitors’ Chambers has now been judged as the winner of the SCL 2000Award and it is intended that the launch of the full development of thePeterborough Pilot will take place later in the year. We have realised that toprovide the 100% reliable system required there will have to be a verysubstantial investment in technology and in office support systems. Such systemswill have to have all the redundancy and security of a banking network whilst atthe same time maintaining end-user simplicity. In this connection one of themajor high street banks is an intended partner and we are also working withPericom plc, FWBS and Lawyers Online to ensure that we can operate on the scaleand with the reliability that the Virtual Solicitors’ Chambers requires.

To find out more I suggest that you log on to The Solicitors’ Chambers Website register an interest or e-mail me.


1. The Chambers is one of the few legal organisationsdominated by women – perhaps they are more flexible?