December 5, 2018

Virtual Paralegals: A Critical Solution for Solo and Small Law Practices

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.

The Problem of Workload

After 15 years at law firms, and 23 years total thus far as a legal assistant (another name for a paralegal), I’ve seen every type of work cycle, and worked in small boutique firms, BigLaw, global companies with solo practitioners. In all this time I have observed that small and solo practices lack the resources of BigLaw - or even "medium law."  You are no less talented, no less skilled, no less committed to your clients - you just don’t have the resources.  

I’m not talking about law libraries; I’m talking about staffing. I’m talking about managing more hours of work with limited hours in the day. Big law firms have teams of attorneys you can bounce ideas off, colleagues who practice in different areas of law and who have been before an array of courts and judges, and first years to do grunt work.  They have paralegals and in-house researchers whose lives are dedicated to the drudgery of law, and they have staff dedicated to supporting teams of attorneys and whole cases from start to finish.  They have vendor contracts with court reporters, document production vendors, and court technologists, and they get beneficial pricing due to scale.  Imagine what you could do with a small fraction of these resources!  Imagine if you could afford them!  

You can. You can gather just as a good a team and spend your time passionately representing your clients.

What’s a Virtual Paralegal?

Major, Lindsay & Africa’s 2018 Industry Outlook Report shows that hybrid staffing utilizing contract attorneys and freelance staff is increasingly the solution to industry challenges. It’s the solution to responding to those potential clients (67% according to Clio’s 2017 Legal Trends Report) who want a fast response to the very first email or phone call they send you and there’s a growing pool of talent. Between 2014 and 2017 the use of freelance professionals grew by 8.1% versus a 2.5% growth in the overall employment market, including a solid professional services segment with a focus on general and specialized legal work.

So what exactly can a virtual paralegal do? We can manage the administrative and paper side of a case from start to finish - client intake, drafting contracts, notification letters, drafting court filings, scheduling depositions, document review, legal research, filing documents with the courts. Bates labeling, bluebook citations, shepardizing, databases, document review, the nuances of filing in various jurisdictions - we do that.  We can maintain your docket and manage routine client communications.  All the things that go into the background of a case, we can do.  It’s not cost-effective for you to spend the majority of your time as an office manager or managing your deposition calendar.  You didn’t go to law school to  template discovery responses; you went to law school to provide justice for your clients. Let technology’s flexibility work in your favor, and give that work to a virtual paralegal.

Our function is to do the first pass, establish the structure, and give you the foundation on which you work your legal magic.

What are the Benefits of a Virtual Paralegal?

A virtual paralegal provides all the same support you can get from one in your office and they can do it without the added overhead of insurance premiums, tax withholding, and office space, saving your practice over 60% of the cost of an employee .  They can do it on a case-by-case basis for niche skills and unusual cases; they can supplement your in-house staff; or you can have them on retainer.  Rates do vary - if they are with a virtual placement service such as Smith.ai they may be slightly less expensive than a freelancer, or if they have specialized skills that you need, such as intellectual property, they might be more expensive.  

But almost every virtual paralegal provides tiered rates, with less specialized services costing less than the niche skill sets.  They sometimes also offer discounts on packages of hours vs individual hours.  You can expect to pay anywhere from $35-$65/hour for a quality virtual paralegal.  Moreover, firms are allowed to recoup the costs of the paralegal by billing the client for their hours, provided they include such services in their fee agreements and the time billed is work that would otherwise be performed by an attorney and is not administrative.  

The most important thing to remember is to be honest and forthright about your needs and expectations. If you demand a freelancer be on call 40 hours a week ,  you may really want an employee rather than an independent contractor and the relationship is bound for rocky shores.

How to Find a Virtual Paralegal

If you have not contracted one, the American Bar Association recommends that a practice use the same standards you would use to hire an employee when you hire a freelancer.  Ask colleagues for recommendations, seek online providers, check with your Bar Association listings.  If you are already with a virtual receptionist service, ask them if they know good virtual paralegals.

Once you identify some candidates, ask those key questions you ask in interviews.  And then ask three more:

  1. Ask how confidential documents are handled.  After all, your virtual paralegal is remote, how do they intend to protect confidentiality? Their answer should include such things as awareness of confidential and encrypted cloud based services, the presence of a firewall on their system, and a policy about how they handle those documents from receiving them to returning or destroying them.

  2. Ask how they intend to handle communications and case management with you.  Their answers need to include how and when to reach them, how long it takes them to respond to requests, how they record time and inform you of their progress.  You also need to know about their availability in case of emergency.  The idea is to be sure you have transparency and that you are comfortable with how your communication goes.  

  3. Finally, this is not something you ask, it’s something you listen for: does the candidate ask you about your needs and systems?  Does the candidate interview you?  Your virtual paralegal is still your partner, a team mate, and they should be as committed as you are to the success of the relationship with your firm and your clients.    

If you have contracted your freelancer, they are covered by the same confidentiality rules as the assistant outside your door. Think of them like offsite document production and deposition vendors: They may see and hear things, but the professional ethics codes they live by indicate that they see and hear nothing. Additionally, confidentiality clauses are an easy addition to freelance contracts, if they are not already present. A qualified and effective legal assistant, virtual or not, lives and works according to the paralegal code of ethics which includes obeying the rules of confidentiality, the bar and the courts, and disclosing to an attorney any potential conflicts as soon as they come to light.  

What you should get for your fee is clear communication, efficient case management, responsiveness, and transparency.  If you aren’t getting it - you need to have a talk and go over expectations and results.  

The Nitty-Gritty of a Virtual Paralegal’s Work

If you already work with a virtual receptionist, such as Smith.ai, my congratulations – they’ll take the calls and provide a professional and responsive first line of contact for your business. Your virtual receptionist screens calls for initial client intake vs. existing client work, and filters out the spam. They create a short summary of legitimate calls and leads, based on your criteria, and send those summaries on to you and/or your paralegal via email or text for the next steps. They even flag high-priority clients or calls to improve responsiveness.

Once your paralegal gets the email, they can evaluate it for conflict checks and other routine actions based on the procedures you prefer.  Some attorneys want their paralegal to take the first actions, while others prefer to talk with the potential client first and hand off certain tasks while conflicts run.

A Typical Day

First thing in the morning, I take a look at my email and find an email from my client’s virtual receptionist system. “New case for an existing client, ClientWidget” and a response that my client took the call. In our weekly status conference later that morning, my client indicates that he has already run his own matter conflict check, something he prefers to do himself, and provides me a quick rundown of the case.  I am unaware of any conflicts of my own and tell him so, initiating my own thorough check.  He indicates he has granted me access to the client’s file on his server via a shared drive in the cloud; I check my email for the link and head to the file.

It’s identified by his customary client matter structure and it contains very little; in fact, it’s completely empty. I automatically create the necessary file tree according to his standard procedures and the case needs. Then I create the client letter with his standard hiring information, complete with terms, fee schedule, and forum information, and share it with him for review.

Next, I add important case dates to his calendar  -  the target date for the initial filings, with reminder and draft deadlines, any upcoming client meetings, and any deadlines the client raised in our call. He does not have a docketing system that automatically populates certain dates and documents because he’s fairly low-tech, so I calculate the relevant dates by hand using the pertinent Local and Federal Rules, and create the documents the same way utilizing this cloud-based file & calendar sharing service instead. I then template his opening correspondence to the other side, the relevant initial filing (which in this case is a complaint), and an entry of appearance. As I finish each one, I send a link to the shared document. Per established procedures, I also send an email to ClientWidget, copying my client, introducing myself as the legal assistant on their matter and making myself available for questions or concerns.  

I then send him a follow up email indicating what I completed today, with the shared links (just in case) to the documents I created, asking any questions I have about next steps, and letting him know that I will check in tomorrow (depending on the deadlines) for the responses and any edits. I notify him of any conflicts. Finally, I update his task tracking forum to indicate these items were completed and the time it took me to do each one; this is for both transparency and for his time entry and client billing.

The tasks and my progress are fully transparent: my client can see what I’m doing in the shared drive, the tasks are completed on time, and I close the loop. And it looks exactly like what happens were I to be sitting outside your door and you yelled from your desk, “Alison, start a new case for ClientWidget, I’ll give you the details.”

Go Virtual

Here are 3 things you can hand off immediately:

  1. Docketing and calendaring -Getting all the standard deadlines into your calendar;  either using your existing docketing system, or just getting the dates onto a Google or Outlook calendar, with all necessary reminders, triggered motions practice deadlines, and meeting scheduling take an enormous amount of flexibility and bandwidth, none of which is billable.
  2. Drafting documents and responses - Templating responses to all discovery requests, initial filings, motions practice, notices to the other side, and client engagement letters is routine for any legal case.  Because these documents require the review and attention of an attorney, they are billable, but the initial drafts and templating can be done easily by an experienced paralegal, freeing you to do the substantive work on the documents later.
  3. Document production log– Every attorney needs to be familiar with the documents relevant to a case – and it’s a long and tedious process. Traditionally, in those firms with tons of staff resources, a team of paralegals and first years carefully tag document production and store the relevant keywords in an electronic log, drastically reducing the managing attorney's burden for document review.  As a solo you didn’t have this luxury until now.  Utilize software programs such as Concordance and/or Summation, if you don’t already, to make that log even more robust.  

Virtual professional legal services are the smart, cost-effective answer to your workload challenges, allowing you to focus on your practice, recapture those non-billable hours, and reduce your distractions.  Simply put, virtual talent makes you more responsive to your clients and channels more profitability into your business.  

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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