Virtual Staffing is the Solution for Solo and Small Practices
In this edition, a freelance attorney and freelance legal assistant join forces to discuss to discuss how law firms can leverage outsourcing to create a virtual team as a cost-effective alternative to hiring and managing full-time staff. Virtual freelance support is revolutionizing the industry by streamlining the delivery of legal services and exposing the antiquated nature of traditional law firm staffing models.
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.
The Workload Never Shrinks
Attorney: Before launching The Freelance Firm, I spent several years practicing at a busy civil litigation firm consisting of myself, one other attorney and two assistants. It was here that I learned firsthand about the challenges facing solo practitioners and boutique firms who are looking to grow in a sustainable way. As our caseload grew, our time diminished. We weren’t in a position to hire another full-time associate because of the time, effort and money required to find and train the right candidate. Essentially, we had about as much work as we could handle, but not enough to justify another full-time salary.
That’s because the hiring process is time-consuming and costly. More importantly, with such high turnover in the legal field, there was a real possibility that we could be in that same position in only a year or two. The question then became — how can we increase our productivity and continue growing our client base without adding to our payroll? That was when I had the idea for The Freelance Firm.
According to the 2018 Clio Legal Trends Report, attorneys bill an average of only 2.6 hours each day. Does it really make sense for smaller firms to hire more associates billing a few hours a day? Or is it more beneficial for those firms to avoid this expense altogether, and instead, use freelance support to increase their productivity without adding to their monthly overhead?
Legal Assistant: After 15 years at law firms, and 24 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, and with solo practitioners. In all this time I have observed that small and solo practices lack the resources of BigLaw — or even medium law; despite being just as committed to your clients and just as skilled.
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. Imagine what you could do with a small fraction of these resources!
A & LA: We want you to know that you can. You can gather just as a good a team and spend your time passionately representing your clients.
What is a Virtual Attorney?
A virtual attorney provides legal services on a freelance basis for other law firms and legal departments. Virtual attorneys support law firms by managing a variety of tasks covering both litigation and transactional matters. Virtual attorneys are a great option for outsourcing complex legal research projects, document review/legal editing, drafting transactional documents, demand letters, pleadings, discovery, motions and more. In many situations, virtual attorneys are also available to provide on-site support, including coverage for hearings and depositions, as well as custom services.
What’s a Virtual Paralegal?
So what exactly can a virtual paralegal do? I suppose we should start with a simple definition of a paralegal. According to NALA:
“Paralegals are qualified by education, training or work experience and are employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity to perform specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. In a law firm setting, paralegal’s time spent on substantive legal work is billed to clients at market rates, similar to other professional staff, but often at a lower rate. This distinguishes paralegals from other non-lawyer staff members. As a general rule, paralegal time spent on administrative or clerical functions is not billable.” [emphasis added]
In practical terms, we can manage the administrative and paper side of a case from start to finish — client intake, drafting contracts, notification letters, 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.
Some of these tasks such as drafting contracts, notification letters, court filings, document review and legal research are also tasks that attorneys, particularly new attorneys, do. That is not a mistake. Take a look at that NALA definition again: paralegals are fully qualified to do substantive legal work, at a lower rate, under the guidance of an attorney. In a larger law firm environment, they do a lot of the same work as a first-year associate, or an attorney fresh out of law school and recently admitted to the Bar. This is intentional as it frees the attorneys to do even more substantive work and saves the client money. Utilizing a paralegal in your small practice means that you as an attorney have more time to dedicate to your clients. While there is no ABA required national paralegal standard, organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) have strong ethical and educational standards for their members.
It’s not cost-effective or efficient for you to spend 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. Whether we work with a virtual law firm like The Freelance Firm, or work for you as a freelance paralegal directly, incorporating a legal assistant into your team is a billable value add for your bottom line. 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 Attorney?
Virtual attorneys are a valuable and versatile resource for law firms, not just as a legal practice, but also as a business.
Let’s start with money. Virtual attorneys generally perform work at rates significantly lower than what hiring attorneys bill their individual clients. Check with your local bar association to determine the specific rules relating to the use of freelance/contract attorneys; most permit hiring attorneys to add a surcharge to the fees they pay to virtual attorneys and paraprofessionals when billing their own client. That means, as a hiring attorney you’re able to retain a sizeable profit margin for work that you don’t touch!
Utilizing virtual attorneys, can have a significant impact on the operations (and growth) of a law firm. More specifically, by outsourcing certain tasks, attorneys within a practice create more time to focus on areas that will have the biggest impact on their firm. Further, virtual attorneys enable law firms to scale productivity, increasing their capacity to take on more work without adding to their overhead expenses — meaning they never have to turn down work because they don’t have the resources.
Another benefit is offloading the time-consuming tasks that pull attorneys away from higher-priority (and higher-value) work. For solo and small practices , it’s imperative to spend adequate time on business development. This includes areas like marketing, networking and establishing relationships with referral sources. These activities will help grow your practice, but if there isn’t enough time to devote to them — these efforts will rarely bear fruit.
Another critical aspect of law firm growth is communication with current and past clients. Clients are often a prime referral source for law firms, therefore, attorneys must take the time to reach out to past and current clients on a regular basis, even if it’s just to check in with them. Clients always appreciate attention from their attorneys, letting them know that you’re on top of their case and that they matter to you. Not to mention that lack of communication is one of the most common reasons for clients submitting bar complaints. Using virtual attorneys will help solve these issues by creating more time to focus on these and other areas that will have a true impact on the long-term success of your practice.
What are the Benefits of a Virtual Paralegal?
An independent contractor, 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 considerably over hiring an employee. They can do it on a case-by-case basis for niche skills and unusual cases or they can supplement your in-house staff by working several hours each week or month. Rates do vary — if they are with a virtual placement service they may be slightly less expensive than a freelancer, or if they have specialized skills that you need, such as intellectual property, their rates may be on the higher end of the spectrum. You can expect to pay anywhere from $35-$65/hr for a quality virtual paralegal and many offer tiered rates and package discounts. Remember too that firms recoup the costs of the paralegal by billing the client for their hours, under guidance from the American Bar Association and Model Rule 1.5, provided the firm includes 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.
Where Do You Find a Virtual Attorney?
As the use of freelance/virtual staff continues to grow, their availability has grown with it. Locating a virtual attorney can often be accomplished by contacting colleagues, inquiring with your local bar association or simply searching online. Wherever you find a virtual attorney for your practice, be sure to conduct an adequate vetting process before engaging them so when you’re ready to move forward, you’ll feel comfortable and confident in their abilities. As a busy attorney, the last thing you need is something else to worry about!
Finding a virtual paralegal is a similar process.
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. If you work with a virtual receptionist service, ask them if they know good virtual paralegals, several of them maintain referrals they offer to their clients. Ask your fellow attorneys if they knew a good paralegal who might want some additional work — or if they have ever worked with a virtual paralegal. 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. 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, 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. 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? 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.
Once you contract your freelancer, they are covered by the same confidentiality rules as the assistant outside your door. 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.
First Steps for Working with your Virtual Attorney
1. Identify work that is a good fit for outsourcing or consider a test project to get your feet wet.
The key to leveraging the benefits of a virtual attorney is to identify work that consumes your time, doesn’t generate much revenue, or that pulls you away from more valuable work.
2. Evaluate virtual attorney’s credentials and background
To ensure that you, as hiring attorney, comply with all ethical duties when using a virtual attorney, you’ll want to verify your virtual attorney’s educational background, disciplinary history, that he/she is licensed in good standing, their conflict-screening process, how they will maintain confidential information and to conduct reference checks.
If you are using a service that provides virtual attorneys, they should have this information on-hand for you to see before getting started.
3. Establish clear parameters for the project (price, deadline, communication expectations, etc.)
If you haven’t worked with a virtual attorney before, you may have concerns about how to hold the virtual attorney accountable for their work. The key is to lay out the specific requirements and expectations beforehand with a written agreement. This agreement should cover items that include, but are not necessarily limited to:
· Scope of the work to be performed; deadline for completion; price (predetermined hourly rate or flat/fixed fee to avoid potential fee-splitting issues)
· How the virtual attorney’s work will be adopted by the hiring attorney
· That the hiring attorney is ultimately responsible for the representation of the client
· Verification that hiring lawyer has provided the virtual attorney to evaluate conflicts of interest
· Confirmation from virtual attorney that a conflict check has been performed and any found conflicts were effectively waived
4. Disclosing the use of virtual attorneys to your client
Your duty to disclose the use of virtual attorneys to your client can depend on several variables. It is important that you review all applicable ethics rules from your state and the ABA to ensure you comply with all your ethical duties. However, you can easily address this by including language in your client engagement letter and/or retainer agreement stating that your firm may engage freelance attorneys and/or paraprofessionals, along with how those services will be billed to the client.
Initiating a Virtual Paralegal’s Work
If you already work with a virtual receptionist, they will screen 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. If not, your receptionist or email system can do the same thing, and of course, you can send the information on as well with a phone call or forwarded email.
Once your paralegal gets the information, 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.
Once the initial steps are taken, the day to day work is much like any other day.
So what does all this mean for you right now? 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.
Now that we’ve demystified the process of adding freelance attorneys and paralegals, and now that you understand what steps will help you feel more comfortable about hiring us for those projects, you know that we can increase your efficiency, lower costs, and increase your profitability, all while revitalizing your love for your practice.
Stephen Duane is the founder of The Freelance Firm, a network of specialized freelance attorneys that provide affordable, on-demand support to law firms and corporate legal departments.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier legal assistant services with a focus in Intellectual Property and Solo Practitioners. Ask her how she can add value to your practice.