An unconventional perspective on a traditional profession
In starting her own firm, Vuja De Law PLC, Tamsen Horton did what she said can be a frightening prospect for those in her profession: something different.
Vuja De Law is a virtual law firm, a term that is still being defined, as there are very few in existence.
Virtual practices provide the same services as traditional firms but without a physical office. Though they function similarly to their traditional counterparts, lawyers at virtual firms have the advantage of low overhead and flexible lifestyles.
For Horton, going virtual is a sign of the legal profession catching up with where the rest of the business world has been for a long time.
“One of the best and worst things when it comes to law is that we have a tendency to say, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way,’” said Horton.
She explained that while most businesses have embraced and utilized technology to every advantage, from a business prospective the legal profession has been slow on the uptake.
Company: Vuja De Law
Horton believes that businesses that will have success in the current economic climate are those that can adapt to a client base that is more realistic when it comes to their resources.
“As a consumer, when I walk into an office, I don’t want to see mahogany and granite everywhere,” said Horton. “I’m paying for that.”
Though technology is her medium, people are what make Horton passionate about practicing law. After becoming new parents nearly a year ago to their son, Kip, Horton and husband Chris became aware of how few of their friends’ families were legally protected should anything happen to them.
“For one, that terrified me as a mother,” said Horton. “It also showed that there was a huge segment of the population that needed an accessible and affordable way to get legal protection.”
Horton uses a flat-rate billing system, making her fees predictable and transparent to her customers. By eliminating costs such as office space, parking, utilities and so on, Horton is able to offer services such as a basic will — which may cost $1,500 elsewhere — for $300 to $500. Doing so provides clients an affordable alternative to using do-it-yourself will kits.
Another deterrent for families and small businesses to seek legal counsel when they need it is the inconvenience and intimidating atmosphere of engaging with a traditional law firm. By meeting clients at their homes or businesses, Horton makes her business work with a client’s lifestyle and maintains the personal connections she considers vital — despite being a virtual firm.
“There are ways to use social media to strengthen your relationships. In other ways, it can be used so that you have no human interaction, which I think is a huge downfall,” said Horton.
“I’m much more fulfilled by having a conversation with someone than I am by reading 70 of their tweets.”
Horton pointed out that large law firms do have a place. When it comes to security issues or corporate law, she said they are better equipped to serve those needs. Her interest is in filling the void for those who are currently without legal protection.
“It took down the barriers that I saw for a huge area of the market,” she said.
Horton supplements her family practice by doing tax law for small businesses and individuals, something she says other attorneys are quick to pass along.
“I was the geek that thought (tax law) was cool,” said Horton.
When Horton was first introduced to tax law, she was struck by how many of the professionals in the industry were creative or artistic personalities.
“I always thought that I had two different sides to my personality,” said Horton, who had at one time considered a career as an interior designer.
She explained that, in many ways, working with tax law is just like laying out the furniture in a room. “You have the code and you need to work within the rules. But those pieces can be moved around to work to your benefit so you’re not exposed or paying more than you need to,” she said.
Horton, who in addition to running her business is also an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School, has always held on to something a professor told her on her last day in his class.
“He said, ‘Learn to keep track of your time in six-minute increments,’ because that is how attorneys bill,” Horton explained. So the next semester she tried measuring her time this way. “I quickly realized that’s not how I wanted to live my life,” she said.
The way Horton has structured her business is intended not only to help her company be successful, but also to fit her lifestyle and her family.
When she decided to pursue her law degree, Horton left an established career as a contract administrator at a company that negotiated licensing contracts between universities and merchandise suppliers. With a Master of Laws (LL.M.) in taxation in addition to her Juris Doctor degree, she had always expected her career to lead her to the Internal Revenue Service or a large law firm.
When the time came to take the next step in her career, however, Horton was determined to do it in a way that didn’t force her to give up her passion for teaching — or her ability to attend her son’s eventual T-ball games and other activities.
“I started thinking about how I wanted to practice law,” said Horton. “I thought, if I’m going to work this hard, I want to own it.”
Horton watched as many of her friends, who she remembered as optimistic and enthusiastic law students, became beaten down by long, inflexible hours and unrewarding work.
“If you step back and ask yourself consciously, ‘How do I make this work for me? How do I make it better?’ you will,” said Horton.
Her firm’s name, Vuja De, is an expression coined by stand-up comedian George Carlin to mean the opposite of “déjà vu”: looking at the same thing everyone else does but with a fresh perspective. Her vision for Vuja De is to expand the business by bringing on other attorneys to work remotely alongside her.
While other firms struggle to find short-term solutions to employee retention, Horton decided to face the problem straight on, making her business fit the people practicing within it. “In 20 years, I still want to enjoy what I do,” she said.
She reflects that the nature of her business model demands a dedicated work ethic and a great deal of trust between employees. But the positive reception and amount of interest her peers in the legal field have shown reinforces to Horton that taking on the challenge of changing the industry culture was the right path.
“I just knew there could be a better way,” said Horton.