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.
Do you have trepidation about working with remote or virtual staff? You may have heard horror stories and be asking yourself, “Can I supervise someone I don’t see every day?”
For many solo and small firm lawyers, however, hiring a virtual receptionist and/or virtual paralegal is crucial to maintain a profitable business. You just can’t do it on your own!
DO NOT wait until the last minute to start planning for virtual staff.
A little thought right now will go a long way toward resolving any concerns you may have about working with remote staff whether they are in house or virtual and freelance, be they receptionist or paraprofessional. Just as you need to plan and prepare for in house staff, you need to plan for remote staff. Your virtual receptionist can ease your day and keep clients happy, but they still need clear instructions. Your virtual paralegal is a professional miracle worker, but they still require guidance and supervision. So to get started, here are 5 tips to help you and your virtual staff succeed:
Most of the horror stories I hear about working with virtual or remote staff fall into the category of poor initial task definition. If you cannot define the task you want done, it will never get done. Even if it is finished, it’s unlikely to meet your standards. Proper task definition requires you to consider why you need the task completed, the tools required to complete the task (including any training necessary), the time required for the person completing the task to complete it, and the deadline by which you need the task completed.
Let’s start with time: How long does this task really take? It may seem like you could do it faster, but if that were true, it would already be done. As lawyers and business owners, you delegate tasks to get them to 75% of the way to complete, and then you can do your part. As you work with someone, they will build institutional knowledge and can perform tasks faster and to a greater level of completion over time.
Remember to leave yourself a day or two (at least) to complete the task by the deadline. This means setting your staff’s deadline before the real deadline. Depending on the length of the task, ensure you’ve assigned it to someone with adequate time to complete their portion before handing it over to you — at least two to three days. Properly calculating the time it takes to complete a task sets you up for fewer errors from rushing and can even save you money — rushing can result in surcharges.
Example: If you need a completed emergency motion to compel on Friday at 4pm, make sure your virtual paralegal receives the task Tuesday morning with a Thursday deadline. Give them the standards and tools they need, like a case caption or preferred formats and check to ensure they have training time if necessary as well.
The next largest chunk of horror stories comes from a lack of effective communication (or any communication at all). How often do you feel like you assigned a task and it’s gone into a black hole and you have no idea what’s happening with it? When this happens, it can trigger your desire for control and you can start changing the parameters of the task on the fly or micromanaging your staff.
There are two key parts to effective communication with virtual paralegals and receptionists: when updates happen and how updates happen. Work with your virtual staff to use the communication methods you already use. If you use a practice management tool, expect to have secure messaging, emails and call data logged within a case file, and case notes logged in your platform by your employee (don’t forget to check the case file if you’re missing updates). If you’re more comfortable with email updates or a quick call, make sure your virtual staff knows when and how to contact you with task updates. Most importantly, make a plan and stick to it!
If your plan fails (as some plans are bound to do) then have a backup plan that works for everyone: Is a phone call more effective or a text message? Do you have a collaborative chat tool where you can ping your employee? Keep to the plan to avoid frustration and a significant loss in time and energy. A haphazard approach to communications can end with a frustrated client.
Note: if you aren’t comfortable with chat platforms, but your virtual staff is, consider learning a little more about using them. Alternately, you could establish multiple channels for communication — your virtual paralegal can enter a case into your file and also send you an email about it.
When you bring on virtual staff, make sure you know your budget and have reasonably set expectations for what you’re getting. There are two types of outsourced help: freelancers and services. Each serves their purpose.
Services are often set up to solve a specific problem. For example, virtual receptionist services answer your phone, take messages, qualify leads, and much more, meaning your phone isn’t interrupting you or going to voicemail. But they can’t help with drafting legal documents or caselaw research.
Freelance virtual paralegals, on the other hand, are able to help with more in-depth legal work, but you should expect to pay them according to their career experience, quality of work, and other factors like professional development, CLE, and expertise in specific legal fields.
Since you need to make a profit as well (you are working hard and running a law firm) stick to this budgetary constraint: Only give billable work to your virtual paralegal, and expect to pay them 40% of what you bill to the client. For unbillable admin work that can’t be done by a virtual receptionist service, hire a freelance legal secretary instead. By planning and budgeting ahead for your virtual staff, everyone will be happier and you’ll profit more in the long run.
Note: Pro bono work should be requested as such. The adage holds — you can have it fast, cheap, or good; but you can only pick two.
Beware of two other factors when budgeting for your staff.
If you don’t communicate your expectations, your virtual paralegal can’t meet those expectations and you will find the process deeply frustrating. Just as you need to define the task, you need to define the result you expect to receive, and you need to explain what you expect the product you receive to look like. Use your best case scenareo “result” to determine success, improvement, or failure and help the professional continue to improve. Don’t worry, they want feedback.
If you want certain language and formatting in your Motion to Compel, make sure your paralegal has a model that uses that language and formatting. If you want a letter sent to the court, make sure your virtual paralegal has an accurate, current letterhead. If you want your memo for summary judgment to follow a certain line of legal thinking, provide the train of thought. If you just want the structure and want to fill in the rest, tell them that. If you want a document 99% done, or one 60% done, we need to know. Don’t forget, you have an ethics obligation for supervising subordinates — even remote ones.
Now that you’re an expert in task definition, communication, costs, and results expectations, it’s time to think about what on earth you are handing to someone else! It seems so much work, maybe you’ll just do it yourself, right? After all, you already know what you want, how to do it, and what it costs. But don’t forget, if you could do it, it would already be done.
You need to identify where the friction points in your practice are — these should be delegated. Friction points include tasks that frustrate you, fall by the wayside consistently, or upset clients. As a general rule, you should always do items that love to do, that only you can do, or that are best charged at your billing rate. Everything else can be delegated.
TASKS YOU SHOULD ALWAYS DO: These are tasks you really must be doing; they build your business, they fulfill you. Things like client strategy meetings, forming legal arguments, finalizing drafts with legal arguments fall into this category.
TASKS TO DECIDE WHETHER TO DELEGATE: Here’s where you start to decide to delegate. These are tasks you like, tasks others can do, or tasks that can be charged at either your rate or a paralegal rate. In other words, these are tasks that reinforce those you should always do but which you don’t HAVE to do. They may be better handled by someone else to free you up. Examples include initial drafts of court filings, discovery, case law research, filing docs with the court, correspondence with the client.
TASKS TO DEFINITELY DELEGATE: If you aren’t delegating these, and those in the next category, you’re costing yourself money. They are tasks you dislike, tasks other people can do, and tasks that may or may not be billable. Basically, these are tasks that are just time consuming and tedious for you. A lot of them may be administrative or business related. They need to get done, but someone else is better qualified to do them — you frequently just push them down your priority list until you have no choice and they become a crisis. Examples include client billing drafts, scheduling, client intake, service to opposing counsel, engagement letters, getting and organizing discovery, data entry that enables discovery, etc. Your virtual paralegal could do these, and so could a virtual assistant.
TASKS YOU SHOULD NOT DO: The last category is for tasks you should have an admin do, preferably even a virtual receptionist. They consist of tasks you hate, tasks others can do, and tasks that are not billable. You dislike doing them so much you simply avoid them and may or may never get around to them. These tasks will cost you business and reputation if they are done badly. Almost all of them can be done by a receptionist or a part time secretary. Examples include answering the phones, scheduling, confirming meetings, client intake, chasing clients for payments, etc.
Delegation allows you to create opportunities to take on more work, rather than turning it down. Furthermore, it shows you what kind of tasks are “in your lane.” Every hour you spend doing something you can delegate loses money for your business. It’s a loss of the difference in your rate not charged to a client and the rate you’d pay to the virtual paralegal or receptionist. It’s a loss of time you could spend being more productive. It’s a loss of client satisfaction. You are robbing yourself of revenue.
Ineffective delegation leads to unhappy clients. Smart delegation means the client gets more effective work, a more effective billing structure, and you can take on more work.
Working with a virtual employee is identical to working with someone in your office with one exception: communication. In a remote environment, communication takes on an even more important role. We cannot see each other, so we must use the communications tools clearly, concisely, and effectively.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier paralegal and legal assistant services with a focus on intellectual property and solo practitioners. Talk with her about your practice needs.