In my talks with attorneys about the impact of virtual professionals on the industry, I hear many of the same questions raised over and over. I’d like to take a moment to discuss the top three and talk about how I, as a Virtual Legal and Executive Assistant, address them.
What’s a Virtual Assistant?
I’m hardly surprised to hear this really. Despite the 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 secretary in another office. Working with a virtual legal assistant is like that. For those that have never had this experience, it’s even more unfamiliar and daunting. It’s hard to imagine having help not right outside your door — if you have it at all.
I Tried it and They Disappeared/The Tasks Were Never Completed
Frankly this one concerns me the most. Talk about unacceptable. I mean, what would you do if this was your assistant outside your door? They’d be disciplined in an instant.
The truth is, quite a lot of VAs 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 $7/hr. Others work with services for the flexibility, but they still are not paid more than $15–20/hr. This is way less than the going rate for quality, experienced, legal staff. The advantage of a service is that they should be able to provide a replacement and accommodate a wider array of hours.
Yet, the old adage holds true in this as in any other industry: you get what you pay for. Planning for your needs and really taking into consideration your goals and intentions is the key. Interview candidates and services with those goals in mind. Consider test runs. And above all, if you want a quality virtual legal assistant, you should consider going beyond a service to contract a freelancer. Their skills and experience come at a higher cost, but they are highly skilled professionals with their own standard of ethics that coincide with the code of ethics you live up to as an attorney before the Bar.
How Do I Integrate a Virtual Legal Assistant?
Now this is probably both the easiest and hardest of questions. It’s as easy as hiring an assistant to be in your office. But it’s hard because there are so many more logistical considerations. You don’t see your assistant, so how do you convey tasks? How do you make sure they’re being done? You aren’t on the same computer network, so how do you share files? You aren’t in the same office, so how do you get materials back and forth? And, in some cases, having never had an assistant before, what on earth do I give them to do?
Since I’ve covered what to delegate, and how to go about doing it, already, and as I have talked about communication as well, I’ll focus on the question of document sharing, and merely elaborate on one aspect of communication by giving you an example from a typical week in the life of a case one of my clients has me working on.
So on a Monday morning, I take a look at my email and my client task tracking forum on a shared document drive in the cloud and I see a new task from my client. “Got a new case in, need your help.”
In our weekly call to go over what’s going on later that day, my client provides me a quick rundown of the case and indicates that he has granted me access to his server folder — via a shared drive in the cloud — containing the case. 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, rates, and forum information, and share it with him for review.
Next I add important 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 Local Rules and the 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. As is my client’s customary preference, I also send an email to the client, copying him, introducing myself as his 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 would check in tomorrow (depending on the deadlines) for the responses and any edits. Finally, I update his task tracking forum to indicate these items were completed and the time it took me to do each one. The tasks 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.
The shared drive and calendar is a simple, confidential, way of sharing information when you don’t have a lot of technological resources at your disposal. 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.”
See? Integration may seem daunting, but the answers are fairly straightforward.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier administrative and legal assistant services with a focus in Intellectual Property and Solo Practitioners. Ask her how she can help you make order from chaos.