Overcoming Fears of Virtual Legal Assistants

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

10874458_sIs running your law practice growing to more than you can handle, but maybe not enough for full-time help? As a prudent business person, perhaps you aren’t ready to make the commitment to hire more staff or to lease additional space to accommodate them. If you find yourself working too many long hours just to keep up, and doing work that you should be delegating, maybe it’s time to experiment with a virtual paralegal or virtual administrative assistant. Virtual workers can permit you to flexibly expand and contract your office staff as your needs fluctuate on a project by project basis.

Confidentiality and Security

Some lawyers worry about confidentiality and security when they can’t look over the shoulder of an employee. Cathy Ribble, owner of Digital Paralegal Services, LLC, says her firm has training concerning confidentiality and security. When an assignment is completed, any printed documents are shredded, returned to the lawyer, or shipped to a third party at the lawyer’s direction. They use password protected, secure internet network connections and their electronic devices are password protected. “I avoid open forums for calendar and document collaboration tools published for the general internet public.  There are many secure, encrypted and password-protected alternatives for collaboration,” says Ribble.

Andrea Cannavina, CEO of Legal Typist, Inc., emphasizes that selecting the right technology and the right people are important elements of protecting clients. Most of their digital assistants have over 10 years of experience in a traditional law firm setting. Most such organizations work with independent contractors, so make sure subcontractors are required to enter into confidentiality agreements. Subcontractors for Legal Typist “have to separately initial a confidentiality clause in the [independent contractor] agreement,” says Cannavina.

Range of Services

Virtual legal assistants can handle just about everything your traditional assistant does. I use a virtual assistant in my business, and she even brings me coffee sometimes. (She’s local and usually comes into my office about once a week, stopping by Starbucks on the way.)  Ribble describes the virtual services  she offers by saying, “I find myself providing the same paralegal support I provided while working in a traditional law firm.” She rarely meets lawyers face to face.

Here are some examples of the work that specialized virtual legal assistants and virtual paralegals may handle: transcription of dictation or handwritten notes; initial draft transcriptions of pleadings, motions, letters, blog posts, stipulations and interviews; revisions to the foregoing; case and deadline management; document review and organization; pleading preparation, review local court rules, electronic court filings, electronic and mail service of document copies; assistance with legal briefs (citation review, editing, table of authorities, table of contents, binding, printing and/or digital formats); coordination of service of process; billing assistance; internet research and investigation; document production, bates numbering and other discovery tasks; and preparation of hearing notebooks. Some assistants will communicate directly with your clients via telephone or email. Others only interact with the attorney’s office.

Cannavina’s company focuses on digital dictation, but that’s not as limiting as it may sound. “Our clients don’t just use us for documents – think of dictation like speaking your needs – we do calendaring, opening new electronic case files, adding contacts and such – mostly for our clients who also use Clio,” explains Cannavina.

Jurisdictional Requirements

Does your virtual assistant or paralegal need to work in the same jurisdiction where you practice? They don’t have licensure requirements, so they aren’t legally limited to any particular jurisdiction. Legal Typist works nationwide, but they limit their practice to the U.S. for security reasons. They keep all their processes and technology on U.S. soil. While being in the same jurisdiction is helpful, Ribble believes “practice area trumps jurisdiction.  A well-trained experienced paralegal can use basic practice area skills to research a new jurisdiction’s requirements.”

Delivery of Documents and Information

Depending on the type of services provided, virtual workers may accept automated telephone dictation, web upload of text and audio files, email, overnight shipment of documents, and even regular U.S. mail. Some services handle only digital documents and don’t do any courthouse or electronic filings. Virtual assistants and paralegals may also work with your online law practice management software, which can enhance your ability to track the progress of projects.

Cost Comparison

Although the hourly rate paid to virtual paralegals and digital assistants usually exceeds the hourly rate of similarly skilled employees, the law firm may actually experience a cost savings. As every virtual service provider emphasizes, the lawyer pays only for actual time worked, and does not have to pay for overtime, vacation time, sick time, coffee breaks, training or professional development expenses, personal phone call time, payroll taxes, health insurance or retirement benefits. The attorney is also spared the cost of providing an office, furniture, computer, software and equipment for the worker. There are no repair, maintenance, insurance or property tax costs for those items, either.

In general, virtual paralegal rates range between $30 and $65 per hour. Some virtual paralegals charge 25% to 30% of the lawyer’s hourly rate. Some have volume discounts. Prices for virtual legal transcription services are measured in many different formats. The price may be quoted based on the number of words, pages or minutes of recorded audio or even a flat monthly fee. The rate may be influenced by the volume of work contracted for, the clarity of the recording, the number of speakers per recording, or the requested turnaround time.

Conflicts of Interest

Lawyers may worry about how they will manage conflict checking when they use a virtual service. Conflicts haven’t come up for Digital Paralegal Services, due mainly to the different geographical locations from which the work comes. Cannavina reports “in the 10+ years I’ve been a VA, I have not encountered one conflict.” Both companies have a policy of requiring subcontractors to stop work immediately and report to them if they encounter a familiar name.

Nevertheless, all parties should be vigilant about protecting against conflicts of interest. “The rules are no different for a Virtual Paralegal and Virtual Administrative Assistant than for a paralegal, legal secretary or anyone else working under the supervision of an attorney in the brick and mortar setting,” says Vicki Voisin, the self-styled “Paralegal Mentor.” She frequently writes and speaks on ethical issues for paralegals.

Rule 5.3 of the ABA Model Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct requires that lawyers with supervisory authority over nonlawyers make “reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer.” Voisin recommends that all types of virtual assistants “maintain a detailed conflicts log that includes the name of the firm and attorney they’re working with, the name of the case and the parties to the action, and any other parties involved.” They should also be aware of “personal conflicts they might have: relatives/friends on the opposing side, stock or business interests that might be a conflict, cases they worked on in previous employment, etc.” says Voisin.

Ribble says she prefers to work with paralegals certified by the National Association of Legal Assistants because they “must meet certain ethics requirements within their CLE credits, so the attorney is assured of a baseline understanding of [the attorney’s ethical requirements].” There are a number of other certifying organizations for paralegals and legal assistants.

If you are now ready to dip your toe into the virtual pool, you can think of the guidance in this article as your virtual floaties. Happy swimming!

© 2011 Debra L. Bruce. Adapted from an article by the author originally published in the September 2011 issue of the Texas Bar Journal.