February 26, 2019

5 Common Concerns About Working with Virtual Legal Assistants – and How to Address Them

This is a guest post by Alison Pacuska, the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier paralegal, administrative, and legal assistant services with a focus on intellectual property and solo practitioners.

Today I am going to focus on legal work – by which I mean, lawyers working with paralegals, also known as legal assistants, in the virtual world. In my talks with attorneys about the impact of virtual professionals on the industry, I hear many of the same concerns raised repeatedly. I’d like to take a moment to discuss the top five and talk about how I, as a virtual legal assistant, address them.

1. I Don’t Know What A Virtual Legal Assistant Is

I’m hardly surprised to hear this, but don’t let a lack of experience create mistrust. Despite the virtual assistant (VA) industry growing at a double digit rate in the past decade, attorneys tend to be slow adopters of technology and, unless they’re in a nationwide or global law firm, the idea of a remote assistant is pretty strange. But that’s exactly what we are: a remote assistant.

Some solo or small firm lawyers left larger firms to start their own. Those of you who fit this description might be familiar with working with a remote assistant. Maybe you were on a team with a case managing paralegal in another office. Working with a freelance virtual legal assistant provides the same experience.  

For those that have never had this benefit, the idea is daunting. You might be able to imagine someone in your office but managing someone remotely is one step too far. I understand these sentiments completely, you haven’t had any help for all this time, so why start now?

In either case, the reason for help is clear: You simply cannot always do everything. Your skills are in the practice of law and having resources to draw upon like IT, accounting, HR, secretarial pools, and paralegals frees you to practice law. That’s what you wanted right? To be a lawyer?

The most effective way to overcome this concern is to understand that virtual, or remote, staff is just that: staff. Grow your practice, practice more law – or practice the amount you already have more efficiently, more happily, and with more passion – by allowing virtual staff to do the rest. Nothing strange there.

2. My Virtual Legal Assistant Disappeared

Frankly this one concerns me. Talk about unacceptable. What would you do if this was your assistant outside your door? They’d be disciplined in an instant, perhaps fired. All that provides no peace of mind when it comes to getting the work done though, does it?  

There may have been warning signs. Perhaps there was not much communication. Perhaps expectations were unclear. Perhaps questions went unanswered. Perhaps you couldn’t reach each other. It’s important to note these warning signs go both ways, especially if you are not accustomed to working with someone.  Regular communication via email and phone andasking thorough questions when you first interview (yes, you should interview each other) will help alleviate this concern.

The truth is, quite a lot of VLAs working for large services are people working for some extra money on the side around other jobs or commitments. They are paid very little — some as little as $10/hr. Others work with services like Upwork for the flexibility, but they still are not paid more than $15–20/hr. Hiring just one person part-time may not be the answer you really need.

A virtual receptionist service should provide multiple receptionists at a wide array of hours to accommodate the services you need. And they will often charge much less than the going rate for quality, experienced legal staff.

The skills and experience that specialized professional staff bring to the table may come at a higher cost, but that cost includes a standard of ethics that is remarkably similar to the code of ethics you live up to as an attorney. A skilled freelance virtual paralegal will run you anywhere from $30-$75/hr depending on the type of work being done. As in law practice, niche practice areas like intellectual property and litigation will be more expensive.

Talk to your virtual professionals; you are a team. Communicate your expectations to ensure your staff (virtual or in-house) is there to complete your tasks when you need them. Plan ahead for your needs and take into consideration big-picture goals and intentions. Interview and research candidates and services with those goals in mind. And hire at the level that you need. For an experienced virtual legal assistant who is always on hand, contract a freelancer and compensate them appropriately.

3. My Virtual Legal Assistant Doesn't Complete Tasks (on time or at all)

Just like #2, this often comes down to communication and expectations.  

Lawyers and their virtual legal assistants must build trust by regularly discussing expectations, timelines, and priorities. It is important to make sure you and your remote staff are communicating – if not daily, then weekly. I have written blog posts about communication because it’s so important!  

Here are some common issues and what to do about them:

  • Problem: You, the lawyer, don’t know what the status of a task is.
  • Solution: Use a time or task entry system, to which each project is added. Update and review it regularly.

  • Problem: You didn’t get a time-sensitive task on time.
  • Solution: Communicate the priority of tasks. Your staff doesn’t know if this amendment is more important that that client pitch letter unless you tell them. If you need a document today, but you normally have a 2 day turn around, don’t expect your staff to know this one is different unless you tell them.

  • Problem: You haven’t gotten a message confirming the work you requested.
  • Solution: Let your virtual assistant know when and how you want to receive confirmations. If you haven’t heard from them, check your task tracking system and your spam folder and then follow-up.

  • Problem: Your task is incomplete because your assistant needed more information. But you are busy and don’t have time to answer questions.
  • Solution: Be proactive, give thorough instructions when you assign tasks and, if you are facing a busy period, let them know that it might take more time than usual to get back to them.

Effective communication is inherent in these examples, but you also need to manage expectations properly. Convey your needs and expectations and your virtual legal assistant should convey whether they can meet those needs and expectations, as well as what they need and expect from you in order to do so. You must work together.

Example: I recently completed a project that illustrates expectations perfectly. A client needed a transcript of a meeting turned around same day. To me this meant that he wanted a perfect, word for word recording of an audio file – with all the ums, likes, laughter, and sidebars that may be present. I was concerned about meeting his deadline and I told him so, but that I would have it to him same day even if it meant I delivered it by midnight. About halfway through, four hours later, I gave him an update as to where I was, letting him know that I expected to be finished in another few hours, and that I needed to complete the fifth and final pass through the file. He called me right away to let me know that he didn’t need anything nearly that perfect because the transcript wasn’t for court. I was thrilled. This was a very different delivery time frame, requiring fewer passes, and it cut the remaining work in half. We both learned a great lesson that day – my client now conveys his expectations more thoroughly, and I ask more questions before making assumptions.

4. I Cannot (Safely) Integrate Someone Who Isn’t in my Office

There are definitely some new logistical considerations when training and integrating virtual staff, even though the process is pretty similar to training someone in your office.

Here are the top concerns I’ve heard from attorneys:

How do I convey tasks and check on the status of tasks?

As mentioned in #3, use a virtual task entry or project management system to assign and check on the status of tasks. Do some research on the platform you choose to ensure it is secure for sharing legal documents. Make sure you communicate due dates and details of the task at hand.

How do we build rapport? Will I know if our professional relationship is working?

Similarly to task assignment, you should communicate and set expectations with your virtual legal assistant regarding personal and working relationship issues. Start with a video call to get some face-to-face time. Make sure you check in on a weekly and quarterly basis about how everything is going. Just like with a staff member you have in the office, you need to keep up with any approaching vacations or time off they may need. You only need to put aside a few moments to talk to them and remember that your virtual assistant, while virtual, is still human.

How do I securely share files with a different computer network?

Research the platforms on which you share documents virtually. This will indicate how your practice handles confidentiality and security overall. While I have gone into the details elsewhere, the keys to proper security are to make sure you have good passwords, maintain your antivirus and operating systems, and train everyone touching your data everywhere in proper security measures.

Most files these days will already have a digital format, but for physical boxes of client files and handwritten notes, all you need to do is scan or photograph and email them to your assistant. You can also use dictation software to create digital voice notes and audio files.

For attorneys with a lot of physical files, I recommend buying a scanner with a high capacity document feeder. Alternately, consider taking your files to a place such as Office Depot. By digitizing all your files, you can organize them, easily share them with your virtual legal assistant, and save tons of space in your office.

Example: Here’s an example of how I get materials from my clients, perform the tasks necessary, and get the materials back to them – all entirely electronically.  

My client tells me they met with a new client and need a will and trust drafted. The email has an image of the meeting notes buried in the text. I immediately go into our cloud-based document sharing platform and create a folder containing the client’s intake information and the notes contained in the email. I then add an engagement letter befitting the work requested of my client and create the necessary document drafts based on the information contained in the meeting notes. If I have questions, I will reach out to my client (the lawyer) on the platform they prefer for communication. Once all these documents are in the file, I respond to my client that the task is complete and include a hyperlink to the folder.

Many of my clients use cloud-based drives, to which I have edit access. This shared drive is a simple, secure, and confidential way of sharing documents and information when you don’t have a lot of technological resources at your disposal. Integration may seem daunting, but the process is straightforward.

5. I Have So Much to Do – I Don’t Have Time to Onboard Someone New

If this rings a bell it is exactly why you need an assistant. But outsourcing routine work can save you so much time it's worth the initial investment.

Let's do the math...

You have 1000 pages to review and log for a client:

Not only do you save yourself 32 hours of your valuable time, you will have more time for billable work by outsourcing work that doesn't require an attorney. Make the time now to outsource and train, and you can save tons of time in the future and increase your profits!

Conclusion

With the right research and communication, you can move past these myths and start outsourcing to improve your business. Remote legal assistants are professionals; work with them to address the concerns of your clients. While this post generally related to working with a virtual legal assistant – the principles apply to working with any virtual professional. Outsourcing to virtual staff saves you time, makes your business more cost effective, and you can even pass some of that savings onto your clients.

About Alison Pacuska

Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier paralegal, administrative, and legal assistant services with a focus on intellectual property and solo practitioners. Ask her how she can help you make order from chaos.

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