What exactly is a Virtual Assistant or VA? Simply put, a VA is someone who works remotely, online whether from their home or office. They are independent contractors or employees who work and use technology to deliver services. They provide administrative, technical, social media and creative services to clients.
Virtual assistants specialize in various industries such as marketing, real estate, accounting, law or financial services. Firms often hire virtual assistants to save money. They don't pay for the assistant's equipment (including computers), training, overhead, dues, materials, furniture, office space, taxes (if hired as an independent contractor), parking, or insurance.
What Do Virtual Assistants Do?
As a Virtual Assistant, you can do a variety of tasks. You can become a generalist or specialize in a legal specialty such as bankruptcy, litigation, real estate, estate planning or corporate. The Internet has made it possible to do a wide variety of things remotely, or, “virtually.”
A lot of people hear “virtual assistance” and think only of administrative tasks like typing and answering emails. But the range of tasks VAs do is much broader: There are countless services you can provide virtually. Here is a partial list:
• Email management
• Answer phones
• Calendar management
• Travel arrangement
• Graphic design / creation
• Web design / development
• Audio / video / photo editing
• Consulting / counseling / coaching
• Marketing / Promotion
• Social media management
• Project management
• Customer service
• App development
• Data entry
• Legal: Prepare litigation, estate planning, bankruptcy, corporate, real estate, family law, immigration and other practice specialty documents, schedule events and calendar management for law firms and attorneys; audit letters; handle correspondence; intake; anything and everything a legal secretary can do.
Before you close the door to your cubicle, pack up those Bekins boxes and head out for a bold new life, there are plenty of issues you’ll need to consider. A Virtual Assistant can choose two options: you can be an employee for a company or you can start your own business.
Dawn Draper graduated from Davenport University in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science and major in Paralegal Studies. “I worked as a paralegal “in-house” for 11-years, she says, “and although I found it very rewarding, I chose a different career path as a paralegal in the wireless telecommunications industry for about one-year. I soon realized I missed working in the legal field, but at the same time wanted to own my own business. In January 2008, I began researching the world of virtual assistants. I was amazed to find paralegals working virtually from their homes for document preparation services and law firms performing the same work, with the physical exception of putting files into a filing cabinet, as I did when working in-house. I made my decision to venture out into the virtual world of law as it seemed cost-effective and time-effective both for the attorneys and me.”
Finding Virtual Assistant Jobs with Employers
Let’s start with the fascinating discovery of Virtual Assistant jobs that are available through employers. This up and coming brand new avenue to positions is rapidly becoming a new career path for legal assistants. According to Virtual Vocations, (www.virtualvocations.com) a website offering a legal category, just a few opportunities you can land working for a law firm or company include:
• Telecommuting Trademark Clearance Paralegal
• Virtual Law Enforcement Transcriber
• Virtual Typist Legal Transcriptionist
• Paid Legal Intern
• Attorney Auditor: Review legal and non-legal invoices for services provided to insurance carriers for corporate legal departments.
• Compliance Paralegal
• Virtual Legal Writer: Work for a publishing firms. Core responsibilities include contributing well-written, informative articles to company's websites.
• Junior Legal Operations Analyst in Phoenix
• Legal Web Content Writer: A staffing agency needs an individual to deliver custom Web pages for customer's website products. Provide quick turnaround and be flexible.
• Freelance Legal Translator/Editor
• Sr. Legal Editor in New York City. Candidates will be responsible for reviewing Practical Law resources related to representing public companies in securities offerings and M&A transactions.
• Paralegal: Conduct legal research and initial case assessments. Requirements include: 5+ years of experience as a paralegal. Experience with transactional, family law, bankruptcy and/or probate experience required.
• Legal Secretary: A boutique civil litigation firm in Downtown San Francisco is looking for a part- time, remote litigation secretary. The ideal candidate will commute to the office once a week.
• Legal Application Analyst in New York City: A staffing agency is filling a position for a Bilingual English and Spanish Analyst. Create, modify, test, and maintain queries against data for topical view databases.
• Trusts & Estates Secretary: A well-known, international law firm in San Francisco is in search of an experienced secretary for 60% corporate and 40% probate.
• Remote Intake Paralegal in West Palm Beach: Must be able to assist on personal injury matter type cases. Work with medical providers to get medical records.
• Virtual Technical Assistance Manager - Nationwide position working remotely.
Starting Your Own Business
You can start your own business as a Virtual Paralegal or Legal Assistant. There are many different services you can offer, but even something more to consider is who would you like to work for? While some legal VAs are generalists and work on a wide variety of tasks, it's easier and more lucrative to choose a practice specialty. Figuring out what specialty you want to focus on can be a challenge, but if you mind-map your passions, interests, experience, and knowledge you can narrow it down relatively easy. Stick with your expertise.
When you set up your own business, you have more flexibility with scheduling, choosing clients, and setting your rates, but you'll also have to find your own clients, set up your business, and pay self-employment taxes. Setting up a virtual assistance business is easy and has relatively low start-up costs.
Some items you'll need to get started with are a phone line or cell phone, a computer, high-speed internet access, a printer, fax, and scanner, and a website to market your business. You can set up a website easily. There are several websites you can use such as WIX or WordPress that are very inexpensive and easy to use. Be sure to make your website as professional and “big-time” as possible. Your clients will judge your expertise on how professional you look. A rinky-dink website is not going to bring you a plethora of clients.
You will also need access to the mainstream software used by most law firms or know these programs inside and out. Just a few are:
• WordPerfect (Yes, some firms are still on WordPerfect)
• Chrome River
• Accounting software
• Time Matters
• Essential Forms
• World Dox
• Lexis/Nexis Westlaw
• Corporate Focus
• Legal Master
• Workshare, Worksite, ProLaw, Abacus, Adobe Acrobat, Conversion PDF to Word/Word to PDF, iBlaze
You will need to be proficient in styles in Word and up-to-date in the latest versions of almost all software. Don’t know the latest in some of the litigation support software and headed in that direction? Check out the websites. Relativity, (www.relativity.com) for example, has a website where you can take free tutorials.
You will also need to be very familiar with social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat. Your clients may need you to know these. You should have Skype or FaceTime to talk with your clients face-to-face. You need to be able to text them. They should feel they can reach you easily and without stress.
It is important that you understand how to run a business. While you don’t have to have an MBA or draft a five-year plan, you do need to understand cash flow, accounts receivable, billing, accounts payable, how to balance a checkbook and other accounting and marketing functions. Your success doesn’t “just happen” because you set up a website and away you go!
“In order to effectively succeed as a virtual paralegal,” says Draper. “You have at least 5 years of experience in a law firm as a paralegal or secretary with at least a legal assistant or a paralegal certificate. Most attorneys I have spoken or worked with have raised the education and experience issue which is an absolute must to all of them. You must be able to provide services both locally and nationally to succeed. So, you would have to have the ability to follow state and local rules and procedures for any state you provide services to an attorney in.”
Do You Have What It Takes?
“I started working as a secretary in 1986,” she says. “All of my experience is hands-on. Most of my background was in oil and gas before starting Virtual Gal Friday. I worked as a solo VA for 10 years and outsourced to the company’s first subcontractor in 2008. The company has grown to having full time in office employees that work with our clients as well as remote employees.
The Upside and the Downside
As always, there’s an upside and downside to every new adventure. In future articles, we’ll explore these. Bottom-line is, done right, you can find yourself in a very lucrative career, whether working for someone else or building your own business. But there is a downside.
Five Warning Flags Before Starting Your VA Business
Don’t be naïve! Here are just five of the “You don’t” zones you need to change to “You do” to create a successful business:
• You don’t have enough money to sustain you while you are building your business. This can be critical. It could take 4 months or more just to bring in your first client.
• You don’t understand how to market for a new client.
• You don’t understand how to bill clients and under or over bill.
• You don’t pay attention to your receivables and your collections are past due.
• You don’t have the expertise or enough experience to carry out the assignments. You are learning at your client’s expense.
Do You Have the Right Personality?
“I think you need confidence and the ability to sell your services,” says Brown. “If this is really something you want to do, you can do it. Make sure those around you support your efforts. Look at what you really enjoy doing and do that. If you don’t have a passion for your business, it turns into a job.”
Have the fortitude to be a great virtual assistant and make your clients love you. I did a little research and here are the 10 top personality characteristics I came up with you’ll need for success:
Ten Ways VAs Can Make Their Clients LOVE Them
1. Care about your client’s company as if it were your own. This isn’t always easy. Caring for your client’s company in subtle but important ways builds trust essential to the long-term VA/Client relationship.
2. Take initiative. Reminding your client that you are there to help, prompting them for tasks coming due, and reminding them when you don’t hear back from them are all ways that you show your client that you “have their back.”
3. Bring fresh ideas to the table. Clients often have set ways of doing things, but you, as a VA can bring them alternative ideas to do business. Stay on top of technological advances, try free trials of innovative new systems, and suggest ways to improve the bottom-line or staying ahead of the competition.
4. Be flexible and juggle priorities well. Clients really appreciate flexibility and a finite ability to juggle priorities. The old “multi-tasking” idiom applies here. You may have several clients coming at you at the same time. It is the same as if you were in the office working for five attorneys on one secretary. Yes, you are working remotely but you still need to juggle priorities.
5. Own mistakes. Mistakes do happen, and we hate it when they do, but they are inevitable. Client’s don’t like it when mistakes happen but they are more forgiving if you own up if the mistake is yours.
6. Don’t take criticism personally. This may sound trite but it is important. It’s business and you are there to get it right. Get over it! Grow up and stop taking feedback personally. Look at it this way… if a client is taking the time to tell you what they don’t like and what they prefer, then they are taking the time to groom you into a better VA. That’s a good thing. When they go radio dead silent and stop issuing ways to improve, they may be shopping for a new VA.
7. Endure isolation: Do you possess the ability to work on your own? Remember: you are working at home. That means that you are not surrounded by colleagues. Sure, your kids may be there, your dog may be running in and out of the house but you may also be isolated. On the other hand, you could be on the phone and that may be enough human contact for you. Can you handle that?
8. Don’t lose your temper: If you’ve worked in a law firm, you know that attorneys and peers can sometimes drive you nuts. Nothing has changed when you work remotely. Are you even- keeled and do you have patience? You will lose the client or lose your job if you lose your temper. It’s that simple.
9. Be a Problem Solver. Ultimately, you are there for your client to solve problems. When an obstacle emerges, don’t just contact your client and ask what you should do. Instead, inform your client of the situation and offer at least two possible workarounds. Select a recommendation and say why, and then ask your client which she prefers. Make life for your client as easy as possible.
10. Bring humor. Be careful not to go overboard and stay professional! However, my mother used to say you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. She sure was right with that one.
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing. She is a former Administrator at two major law firms and a Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Recipient. She previously held the position of Sr. Executive VP in a $5 billion staffing company. She is the CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and Co-Founding Member of the International Practice Management Association and The Organization of Legal Professionals. Chere has written 10 books on legal careers. She has been written up in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Trib, Newsweek, Daily Journal, and other prestigious publications. She is a recipient of the Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement Award. Her blog, The Estrin Report has been around since 2005. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.