I’m sure you have trepidation about working with remote or virtual staff. You may have heard horror stories. You may not really understand how to supervise someone you can’t see everyday. What you do know, however, is that you cannot do it all on your own.
DO NOT wait until the last minute.
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. Just as you need to plan and prepare for in house staff, you need to plan for remote staff. Your virtual paralegal is a professional miracle worker, but they still require guidance and supervision. Here are 5 tips for managing virtual staff that will enable you to succeed and develop your team.
- Define the task properly. 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. If it does, 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.
I want to bring special attention to the last two parts of this: the time required for the person completing the task to complete it, and the deadline by which you need the task completed. .
The time it takes for the person completing the task is pretty important. It may seem like you could do it faster, but if that were really true, it would already be done. The idea behind delegating tasks is that whomever completes the task gets it 75% of the way to complete then you do your part. As you work with someone, they build institutional knowledge and can perform the task faster and with greater level of completeness over time. And sometimes, they really can do it faster than you could.
In terms of the deadlines, remember you still have to do your part. So if you have a deadline, you want at least a day, preferably two, to work in your legal magic. That means you need to assign the task to someone two to three days before you need it, preferably more, so they have time to complete their part. Building in time to complete a task properly sets you up for success and allowing sufficient time saves you money — it means fewer errors and a superior product, and rushing often results in surcharges.
2) Define communications expectations. The next largest chunk of horror stories comes from a lack of effective communication (or just non communication). 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? Your desire for control gets triggered and you start changing the parameters of the task on the fly and micromanaging your staff.
You and your virtual paralegal need to establish the two key parts of effective communication: when to get updates and how to get them. Then you must stick to the plan. Sure, we know flexibility is necessary, but if we are expecting to use the communications methods in your practice management program because that’s what you want — including secure messaging, emails within a case file, and case notes — don’t leave us a text message or email demanding to know what’s going on and complaining we haven’t updated you without looking in the file. If it’s an emergency, then a phone call is more effective, but have a plan for that too because maybe a chat pop up is more effective. If we work remotely and the plan included communications via email, leaving us messages by phone or text means we don’t get them as efficiently. Not keeping to the plan leads to frustration and often prevents the application of the very flexibility required to absorb those emergencies.
Perhaps you aren’t as comfortable with chat windows or these technological means of communication and that is a concern for you. A few brief things on that. We understand, we do. But. 1.) Learn them anyway. In the 21st century, your clients expect to use them. 2.) Establish more than one channel — the case file and email perhaps. Or email and the phone. You want a technology method AND a back up — because sometimes things fail.
Regardless of the method, stick to it. A haphazard approach to communications means that things get lost, tasks fall through cracks, and clients get frustrated. A frustrated client won’t pay you and won’t refer you more business.
3) Clarify your budget. We know emergencies happen and we accommodate them regularly. You must have reasonable expectations. Last minute emergency requests are often a sign of poor organisation and you are setting up your virtual relationship for failure. So what should you pay for all this help? Well, as in anything, you get what you pay for. A lot of experience can come at a cost and a freelancer will frequently appear to be more expensive than a service. Maybe a service is something you’re more comfortable with — but remember, the service isn’t paying the staff the rate you pay, it’s normally paying them a small fraction of the rate they bill you.
I am forever disappointed to see people demanding mid career experience and quality, for a price lower than any law firm pays entry level staff in any market. I have seen services and posts on freelance boards paying no more than $15/hr for help with federal filings and caselaw research. That’s ridiculous. Virtual professionals worked hard for their skills, they have continuing training and education; my state doesn’t require CLE but I take CLE because I am a professional. Professional development and commitment to my career comes at a cost to me. By insisting on paying them such a low rate, you’re effectively demeaning everything these skilled professionals have worked toward. 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.
We know you need to make a profit on our work — as a paralegal I want you to give me substantive, by which I mean billable, work. So you need to budget to accommodate a profit and our fees. So expect to pay your virtual professional roughly 40% of what you bill to the client.
Don’t forget you’ll need to build in the hours it takes the person completing the task and any training time, so be mindful of potential rush surcharges. I may very well be able to complete the emergency motion to compel you request at 1pm and need by 4pm on Friday, but there is a rush charge for that. And if you add on two subpoenas and a discovery request at 3pm, that you also need by 4pm, you need to understand that those are not going to be delivered by that deadline, especially if you haven’t provided the tools to do so — say, a case caption or preferred formats. And remember too that every time you call between 1 and 4 pm and ask me to talk to you about the emergency filing for 15 minutes is time you take away from me completing the task on time. Let me do my job.
4) Define the result. If you don’t communicate your expectations, your virtual paralegal can’t meet them 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. Otherwise how do you know if it was acceptable? How do you tell the professional what you want improved for next time? How do evaluate success or failure? We want this 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, but refuse to provide letterhead — or worse, change your letterhead and not tell anyone, don’t expect the letter to go out on time. 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 that. Your ethics obligation for supervising subordinates has not gone away because they are remote.
5) How do I decide what to delegate? Now that you know how to define the task, how you’ll talk about it, what it should cost, and what you expect to receive — what on earth are you handing over 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. Again I remind you 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. I have a handy chart I use as a guide (many of you will recognize this as an Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Go you!). I even color code it as a warning. As a general rule green means go — you should do these, yellow means stop and reconsider doing these; orange means delegate and only keep as a last resort. Red means either this needs to be abandoned or you should not be doing it.
The matrix clearly shows how delegation allows you to create opportunities to take on work, rather than turning it down and shows what kinds 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. You can’t charge anything for stuff in red, and you have to charge less for stuff in yellow and orange. To put it simply: You are robbing yourself of revenue.
Ineffective delegation leads to unhappy clients. If you are spending all your time in yellow, orange and red, when are you doing the substantive work your clients expect in green? Smart delegation means the client gets more effective work, and a more effective billing structure, and you can take on more work.
Finally, I’d like to remind everyone that ALL OF THIS 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.