过去一年半中,新冠疫情不断推动新的思考方式和科技工具落地,法律行业也迎来了一系列变革。越来越多律所开始重新思考自己的办公——尤其是房地产租赁政策,虚拟法律服务的发展脚步也日益加快,越来越多 “云办公室”、“虚拟律所” 及“数字化律所”的设立,也引发了对于法律行业未来走向的讨论。

虚拟律所并非全新概念,在亚太地区,老牌大所金杜律师事务所便顺应发展,在36个国家及地区建立了云办公室,其中有22家设立于中国。与此同时,拥抱这一趋势的律所还包括FisherBroyles,该所近日宣布其已进入美国律所营收200强(Am Law 200),成为首家跻身这一榜单的非传统“分散式律所”。

据路透社报道,这家拥有300名合伙人的律所2020年度总收入达1.13亿美元。FisherBroyles还说,仅去年一年,该所便增加了51名新合伙人,而他们“几乎全部来自美国排名100强及200强的律所”。

疫情下,当传统律所纷纷收紧预算、减慢分支机构的布局速度,虚拟律所的扩张成绩却可谓亮眼。市场上另一个快速扩张的玩家便是2008年于旧金山成立的睿盟律师事务所(Rimon Law)。自2020年初疫情爆发以来,该所已在柏林、迪拜、悉尼、伦敦、深圳、德克萨斯以及蒙特利尔等地开设新办事处,将足迹扩张到了世界39个地区。“自(2020年)3月以来,市场对我们律所的兴趣出现暴增。”睿盟首席执行官Michael Moradzadeh曾如此告诉ALB。

睿盟美国华盛顿特区合伙人叶小玮律师对虚拟律所的未来抱有积极态度——叶律师在去年8月加盟了睿盟,此前她曾任摩根路易斯北京办公室管理合伙人。叶律师坦言: “就目前而言,虚拟律所的比例小,经验少,且仍在学习与适应的阶段,但已经有了蓬勃发展的苗头。”

叶律师指出,疫情下,与其讨论虚拟律所是否将成为主流,不如探讨相关模式对于传统律所的启发。“我们看到已有大型律所接受了远程的办公模式,甚至不强求律师与实体办公室进行联系。”她说。因此,虽然传统律所未必都将取消办公室,但远程办公的模式的确已向主流靠近。

叶律师告诉ALB,疫情下的实践已经证明,远程办公除了节省通勤时间以及昂贵开销之外,律师在家的工作效率甚至可能会更高。多项调查显示,大多数律师也更偏向于这样的工作方式。

然而,律所走向“云端”并非简单优美的口号,背后往往需要依靠持续数年的高额技术投入,以及律师与新执业方式进行磨合的时间及人力成本。

总部位于北京的瀛和律师机构是中国第一家以“互联网思维”构建的法律服务机构。瀛和创始合伙人、总部负责人孙在辰告诉ALB,瀛和在“连名字都还没有时就开始了技术投入”。过去几年,瀛和“从产品、业务流程、管理模式、工具,甚至到财务都在往数字化方向发展”,经过几年磨合已经逐渐走向成熟,如今瀛和旗下已有覆盖全球范围内的500多个成员所、合作所及办公室。

“未来一部手机就是一家律所。”孙在辰指出,“传统上,大家办案子、办公都必须依托于律所(场地),几年之后,恐怕这种场景就不会再存在。”

在孙在辰看来,数字化浪潮对于中国律所意味着特殊的机遇和挑战。一方面,今年恰逢中国《律师法》颁布25周年,在过去几十年中,中国法律行业毋庸置疑实现了巨大的发展,但对照西方的百年沉淀,中国似乎仍处于“幼稚园时期”,这点也反映在法律科技工具积累和创新思维上。在孙在辰看来,相对薄弱的积累使得大多数中国律所“没能力开发技术中台、进行核心技术改革”,相关领域呼唤也需要领军者。

不过,正因如此,“数字化改革将是中国法律市场弯道超车的好机会,因此律所管理者们纷纷锚定这条赛道,以谋求反超。”孙在辰指出,“未来的中国律所,数字化是必由之路。它将以法律服务为核心,构建包含科技公司、律师学院、线上平台、法律研究中心等组织的生态圈,成为一个新物种。在这样的趋势下,跨律所合作、跨平台合作、跨行业合作将成为普遍的合作方式,并将焕发出磅礴生命力,催动我国法律服务业长足发展。”

此外,据司法部公布的统计数据,中国10人(含)以下的律师事务所有2.1万多家,占总数的65.57%;拥有律师100人(含)以上的律所则只有320多家,仅占全部的0.99%。孙在辰指出:“中小型律所并不具备管理和运营的土壤,人力、物力和财力都构成其突破发展的瓶颈。” 但从某种角度上讲,数字化恰好解决了这一问题,能帮助中小所在降低成本的同时提高效率。

最后,睿盟的叶小玮律师也再次提醒了虚拟律所面临的两大挑战:即人才招聘和虚拟合作平台的建立。

“招聘‘不需要管理层看管的顶级人才’是虚拟律所的目标。”叶律师坦言。这无疑增加了他们的招聘难度。毕竟,合伙制律所本身就是相对松散的组织方式,在不以物理方式对人加以束缚的情况下,做好品控和品牌变得更为微妙。

此外,就虚拟平台来说,资金与时间的投入也不可避免,“我们花了大约三年的时间来建立平台,并在视频会议工具、团建、云端软件等方面花费了大量的成本。”叶律师补充道。

虽然成本不菲,但瀛和孙在辰主任仍对虚拟律所的未来表示期待。 “虽然存在试错,且成本投入是一道必经的坎,但数字化这扇门早晚会开。” 他说。

 

The cloud offers an attractive model for law firms, but the journey will not be easy

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the global legal industry to consider new technologies and ways of working, and one of the topics for discussion has been the need for physical office space. Why pay exorbitant amounts in rent for prime locations, when available technology can enable lawyers to perform almost all their functions online?

This has interestingly coincided with the emergence of virtual legal service providers in the form of “cloud-based” law firms, which keep the use of office space to a minimum, usually for face-to-face meetings with key clients. Among the law firms that have embraced the trend are FisherBroyles, which recently announced that it had cracked the Am Law 200, becoming the first non-traditional, so-called “distributed law firm” to rank among the top 200 highest-grossing U.S. firms.

Reuters cited the 300-partner firm as saying that its annual gross revenue reached $113 million in 2020, with FisherBroyles noting that in the last year alone it added 51 new partners "almost entirely from Am Law 100 and 200 ranked firms."

Another fast-expanding player in the market is Rimon Law, established in San Francisco in 2008, which now has a presence in 39 locations worldwide, including in Shenzhen. And business has been just as good for it: The firm posted a 53 percent increase in revenue in 2020 compared to 2019.

Ye Xiaowei, a partner at Rimon Law’s Washington D.C. office, holds a positive view on the future of virtual law firms. Ye, who joined Rimon last year, was the managing partner of Morgan Lewis & Bockius’ Beijing office between 2014 and 2018.

The virtual law firms “seem to be very small and only starting to learn how to do things in a virtual environment,” she says. “However, we are also seeing very large firms embrace the virtual option, allowing their partners to work remotely without even associating with one of their brick-and-mortar offices.”

Ye also tells ALB that the COVID-19 has shown that lawyers can work more efficiently at home, and surveys show that most of them prefer it. Working remotely eliminates commute time as well as expensive overheads.

CHALLENGING JOURNEY

However, “moving to the cloud” is easier said than done, and can involve a challenging journey that law firms need to be prepared for.

For one, says Ye, “recruiting the talent and building collaboration virtually was initially a big challenge… We recruited only top-tier talent that did not need management looking over their shoulders. Instead, the firm could focus on collaboration.” Given the loose organizational structure that lawyers have to work within – which can make quality control, and feeling like part of a firm, difficult – recruitment can become a tricky prospect.

Additionally, firms needs to consider the investment of money and time. “It took about three years to build the platform and start building the critical mass where this was possible,” Ye says, “We spent a lot of time and money on video conferencing tools, retreats, cloud-based software.”

However despite these hurdles, law firms should still consider the model, says Sun Zaichen. Sun is the founding partner of the Beijing-based Winteam500, which claims to be the first “Internet-minded” legal service agency in China.

He feels that small and medium-sized law firms have disadvantages compared to their larger counterparts, but placing more reliance on technology could help narrow the gap as it would help cut costs and improve efficiency. “There will be a try, a failure, and the cost will be a hurdle, but the door of digital will open sooner or later,” Sun says.

 

To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com.