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So much relating to the practice of law is tangible. Law books, fee agreements, and case files are just a few examples. But, with the advent of technology, the luxury of a secretary or legal assistant sitting at their desk right outside your office door isn’t a mandatory aspect of running a law practice, even when your busy schedule demands work from outside sources.

The profession of legal virtual assistants (VA) is exploding, if Chere Estrin, president and co-founder of The Organization of Legal Professionals is to be believed. “The Virtual Paralegal field is a booming cottage industry that has its roots in the recession," Estrin says. "As more and more attorneys graduating from law school after the recession could not secure jobs, they turned to virtual lawyering. That, in turn, led to virtual secretarial and paralegal positions.”

The Security of Having Someone Right Outside Your Door

While a lawyer might feel a bit strange not having a secretary sitting right outside his or her office, whether that’s to complete various tasks or even run interference between the attorney and clients, technology has diminished the need for assistants to be at the lawyer’s physical workplace to ensure the practice is run efficiently.

“Attorneys need to get out of the mindset they need someone sitting right outside their door. Attorneys are incredibly inflexible and tend to hold onto the old ways of doing business,” says Dana Fortier, founder and proprietor of Your Branch Office, a virtual assistant entity for entrepreneurs. Her professional experience includes several years as a virtual assistant for lawyers, but recently she decided to change her focus.

While working virtually, VAs can provide lawyers with a myriad of administrative and support services needed to run a law practice. For example, they can create trial notebooks, schedule, take and summarize depositions, file documents electronically and maintain a lawyer’s calendar, Fortier says.

The Pros of Hiring a Virtual Assistant

An attorney hiring a virtual assistant enjoys several benefits of that decision. They include:

  • Cost savings
  • The ability to have work completed after normal business hours
  • The flexibility of hiring a professional adept in the exact services the lawyer needs

According to Fortier, the best reason an attorney should hire a virtual assistant is to save money. That’s because the lawyer doesn’t need to pay for a secretary’s desk, office equipment and health insurance or other benefits including parking, since the administrative work is being completed outside the office.

That’s not to say every virtual legal assistant charges less than what an attorney might pay their secretary on an hourly basis, Fortier says. However, in terms of an overall cash outlay, hiring a VA translates into a strong financial choice for several reasons.

For example, in the average law office, it’s normal for the secretary to stop what he or she was working on to answer the phone, greet clients, retrieve client files or a myriad of other administrative tasks that interrupt the work flow. However, the usual virtual assistant isn’t charged with those same duties, so they're able to work without interruption. That translates into tasks being completed more quickly in the virtual universe than the tangible one.

“We’re available more than merely nine-to-five. Since we’re virtual, we can make ourselves available to meet our client’s needs,” says Brian Barnes, owner of 713Bankruptcy, a company that trains people to become virtual legal assistants for bankruptcy attorneys.

Attorney Wendy Witt, director of Practice Development for WealthCounsel, a national consortium of estate planning and business attorneys, has only positive comments for her experiences with various VAs she has employed to assist with her legal marketing consultant work.

“VAs allow you to hire the best person for the job, not the best person in your neighborhood," Witt says. "They also help keep overhead lower than bringing a contractor or employee into a brick and mortar office and are, in general, much more satisfied and happy with their work than some in-house employees.” 

With the advent of technology, the main reason an attorney would hire a secretary for a brick-and-mortar law practice nowadays is if the lawyer meets with many clients at the office, Witt says. “VAs can do everything but for meet and greet clients when they come in the door. VAs can draft documents for attorney review, handle all customer services roles, keep the books, fund trusts, manage your social media and website, handle IT issues, etc.” 

What to Look for in a Quality Virtual Legal Assistant

When the question isn’t “should I hire a virtual secretary” but rather “when should I hire one?” the wise attorney should gauge how easy it is to converse with the VA prospect.

“Communication is key. It’s important to speak the same language and that will open dialogues easier,” says Fortier. She also advises lawyers to judge the VA’s attitude to ensure the two of you can enjoy working together.

When Witt looks to hire a virtual legal assistant, she judges candidates on their ability to interact with her, their dedication to deadlines and the quality of the work they submit.

Estrin, who has spent years training people to serve as paralegals, both virtually and in office settings, advises lawyers to be mindful of several concerns when pondering the hiring of a VA. Those considerations include the candidate’s:

  • Prior experience. In Estrin’s mind, to be a successful virtual assistant, a person should possess at least three years of hardcore lawfirm experience
  • Ability to juggle several projects at once
  • Commitment to meeting deadlines
  • Business background. A useful VA will offer a wealth of business-related experience, Estrin says

“The future is bright for Virtual Legal Assistants and Paralegals," Estrin continues. "Attorneys must still oversee the work and are still responsible for the end product. However, here is the wave of the future, particularly as Do-It-Yourself Law continues to rise and mega-trends such as LegalZoom continue to capture the client’s way of getting their legal needs met.”

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

Last modified on Sunday, 14 June 2015
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