Is Hiring a Virtual Assistant Right for You?

Here is an article that appeared recently in the Progressive Law Practice magazine.

"Virtual assistants are hot whether you are a solo practitioner or work in a major law firm," says Chere Estrin, president and founder of The Organization of Legal Professionals. Moreover, she adds, the more tech-savvy the attorney, the easier it is to work with a virtual assistant, also known as a VA.

All of this new-found convenience is due, of course, to the advent of technology and the internet. Lawyers chained to the notion that their assistant must be seated at a nearby desk, answering phones, transcribing dictation and keeping the attorney’s calendar in order for a law practice to run smoothly might be wise to consider the benefits of working with a virtual assistant before poo-pooing the idea.

The A, B, Cs of Working with a VA

There are numerous benefits of working with a virtual assistant versus an in-office employee. The first is the cost savings a lawyer can enjoy by working with someone virtually. It’s not that experienced, skilled VAs are paid less than secretaries. In fact, according to Trivinia Barber, CEO and founder of Priority VA, prized VAs can command upwards of $50 hourly. Instead, cost savings are realized because:

  • VAs are 1099 independent contractors, meaning the lawyer does not pay Social Security or state, federal or other taxes
  • The VA is responsible for their own computer and other office equipment, another money saver
  • The lawyer does not have to provide employee perks, such as medical insurance, parking, paid sick and vacation days

But that’s not all, says Barber. “There are many VAs who can work for as little as ten hours a week, meaning they are flexible. It would be hard to find a secretary to only work ten hours,” she says. Moreover, Barber contends many VAs are “pretty well versed in the online marketing world so their collaborative ability can be extremely helpful to the attorney.”

Eunice Clarke, the director of marketing for the International Virtual Assistants Association, was herself a legal assistant prior to taking on her full-time role with the organization, so she understands the role an assistant plays whether in a brick-and-mortar situation or virtually. Hiring a VA means “anything a lawyer would pay for if a secretary had to come in the office” is saved by hiring virtually.

"If you are a micro-manager, a Virtual Assistant is not for you."

Still not convinced? Hiring a VA who works in a different time zone than the one where a law practice is located can also translate into more work being completed by those VAs in their respective locations. Not only that, VAs can work any time, day or night, so they are not limited by needing to be in the office to complete their tasks.

And, while the VA isn’t taking up space in a brick-and-mortar office, their contact with the lawyer can still extend beyond emails. For example, VAs can tap into online tools such as GoToMeeting and Skype for communicating face-to-face with the attorneys with whom they work, says Clarke.

Of course there are also cons to hiring a VA. For example, says Estrin, if you need something done but your VA isn’t available at the time, you might need to come up with another option. “You don’t necessarily have a full-time word processing department at your disposal” when working with a VA versus an in-office assistant, she says. Another potential pitfall is determining whether the VA possesses excellent project and time management skills.

“Virtual assistants need to know how to be great time managers to impress attorneys how efficient they can make” a lawyer and their law practice, says Clarke.

Are You Right for a VA?

“If you are a micro-manager, don't use a virtual assistant,” cautions Estrin, because you'll never get control. One of the primary reasons people opt to work as a VA is so they don’t have someone looking over their shoulder.

Another type of attorney who probably would not enjoy working with a VA is someone who likes to have a person greeting clients as they come to the office. Moreover, if face-to-face interaction is critical to your law practice, a VA is probably not a great option. If you rely on your employees to help build trust and credibility with clients, then working with someone virtually is not a good choice.

Also, if trusting others is an issue, then hiring a VA may not be a good idea, says Estrin. “Trust is something that people do not consider when hiring a virtual assistant. This issue relates to hiring tech people to work on your system remotely. Ask yourself if you are truly comfortable letting a stranger do work for you when they have access to some of your computers or data. If the answer is no or you’re not sure, then you may not be compatible with a VA,” she says.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with not feeling comfortable about giving someone remote access to your client’s files, but it is a critical question to answer before venturing in the VA market, she says. If you determine you want to dip your toe in the VA pool, there are at least two ways to find one. Not surprisingly, Barber suggests hiring an agency, such as hers, to help match the right VA for the job.

If the lawyer opts for a direct hire, there are specific questions the attorney should ask to help determine if the VA is right for both the job and the lawyer. Among them are to ask:

  • The candidate’s goals for their VA career to ensure they align with the attorney’s mission and vision of their law practice
  • What the VA knows about the lawyer and their law practice. Barber says the response demonstrates whether the VA researched the lawyer and their practice. If they did not, they might only be looking for a job, rather than a long-term professional involvement
  • Specific questions relating to the types of marketing campaigns they have been a part of, if marketing is one of the duties the lawyer wishes to assign the VA
  • Scenario questions to determine the VA’s temperament and ability to work with the clients served by the law firm.

If employee loyalty is a great concern for you, be aware it may not develop with a virtual employee. However, the same can be said for brick-and-mortar staffers, too. “There are virtual assistants who will give you the dedication and loyalty of a 20-year employee. Find out early on who you are dealing with,” says Estrin.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

Reprinted from Progressive Lawyer.


Ten Top Reasons Midsize Law Firms are Disappearing

Fear.MP900414034[1]Oh, for heaven's sake! First we read for years how the major firms are going to go under, disband or simply disappear and now we're reading out go the midsize firms. What's going to be left? Teeny, tiny little firms or solos? What does this mean for the paralegal?

Probably a lot. Already, a new trend is sweeping the country: the combining of the paralegal with the legal secretarial position. That means a new set of skills for paralegals. Does it mean more money? Not necessarily. Is it a downgrade or will the legal secretarial duties no longer be considered legal secretarial and merge with the paralegal? What about those admin duties you're not supposed to charge?

Will paralegals be expected to work longer and harder to meet billable requirements because now they are saddled with legal secretarial duties - i.e., non-billables - and to make up for it and be forever profitable, will hours and expectations go up? Readers, let me know what you think. I'd like to know. Chere

Guest Blogger: Brenda S. Edwards

Creating and sustaining a profitable midsize law firm is challenging, especially in 2015. With many firms shrinking, becoming unstable or simply shrinking, becoming unstable or simply dissolving, both clients and employees are pursuing stability.  While there are many pressures, the following ten reasons are driving forces behind midsize law firm’s financial struggles or failures. 

  1. Top heavy partnership agreements.  While this is not a new phenomenon, the timing of the maturation of these partnerships has exasperated the challenges of operating a law firm’s profitably.   The leverage pyramid has inverted.  Many firms have too many partners, not all of which contribute equally to revenue generation and firm management.  There isn’t enough profitable work to support the firm.  They either have too many employees or too many attorneys that are marginally profitable.  The reverse is also true, where support staff or attorney reductions have been too deep. 

  2. Partners not retiring.  While there is some alignment with the first cause, it may also be unrelated.  Because of the recession and slow recovery, attorneys may not be in a financial position to retire.  Instead they choose to continue working.  In the best cases, they are contributors, productive and profitable.  In the worst cases, they create limited value and profit, yet expect to maintain the same level of compensation. 

  3. Fundamental market shift.  This cannot be ignored.  Certain consumer market segments are gone or substantially reduced.  Simple estate plans are frequently provided by internet legal providers such as Legal Zoom rather than an attorney.  Business clients are leaner, have gone out of business, merged with a larger company or simply don’t have the cash to expend on preventative legal fees. 

  4. Clients requiring more and paying less.  Larger corporate clients continue to shift costs to their legal team.  Downward pricing pressure, fixed or flat fee work and third party billing review companies who are valued by the legal fees they save their clients.  Additionally, corporate clients are requiring that firms increase administrative staff to comply with more complex billing, reporting, and compliance requirements. 

  5. Market oversupply.  There are fewer students in law school and fewer graduates, yet the market remains bloated, especially in the second tier legal markets. There has been little improvement in the past 6 years and Bloomberg reported in June that only 64.4% of law school grads are working in positions that require a law degree.   Many recent graduates, unable to find a paid position either take an unpaid intern position or become a solo practitioner.  Ill prepared to run a business and practice a varied range of law, they undercut the market and become potentially difficult opposing counsel which can result in high legal fees which some clients are unable to pay.

  6. Chasing the same lateral partner.  While hiring a lateral attorney with a portable book of business can resolve some problems, it is increasingly difficult. Firms, anxious to make themselves sustainable, are frequently chasing the same lateral attorneys who have a portable book of business.   This is simply a market supply issue.  There are not enough attorneys with portable books to meet the needs of firms that are looking for them.  Once a lateral is identified, the compensation structure that they require may create new problems for the firm including over-compensating the partner or the inability to deliver the anticipated new business. 

  7. Lack of strategic thinking.  Continuing to think that the market will recover to pre-recession levels and not making decisions, in some instances, unpopular choices to create a sustainable firm. 

  8. Costs continuing to escalate.  Health care costs and increased regulation are just two examples.  For the majority of law firms personnel costs and then occupancy are their two most costly line items.

  9. Not hiring business people and if they do, not letting them manage the business.  Strong management will make the hard decisions.  While some firms have strong executive committees with strong business background, many do not.  The traditional “country club” law firm structure does not align with lean market driven management. 

  10.  Client Hoarding.  While potentially protecting a partner or practice group, it does not help the organization and makes that practice group vulnerable if there is a change in decision making for their client.

Firms can address difficult internal operational challenges.  External market factors will require thoughtful strategies and adjustments.  Law firms that are proactive, well managed and aware of the changing market will create both a profitable and sustainable future.

About the Author: Brenda Edwards is the Executive Director of Phoenix law firm Jaburg & Wilk.  She has expertise in business management and marketing of midsize law firms.


Why Would You Get Hit By a Bus? (And other uses of cliches)

J0178843 Today must have been the day for buses.  On at least three occasions, I read the phrase, "In case I get hit by a bus."  My mother used to tell me that.  Only she added that I had to be sure to be wearing clean underwear just in case.

I commented to my husband that I was reading a lot of cliches lately.  He asked me, "Why do people think they would get hit by a bus?  Why not get hit by a bicycle?  Or a food truck?  Why a bus?"  I didn't have the answer. I did think it was a good question.  But I really didn't have an answer.

Which got me to thinking:  why do people use so many cliches?  A cliche, for example, is saying, "bless you" every time someone sneezes.  Do you really mean God should jump off that comfy couch in the sky and personally bless you?  Do you pay any attention deep down inside when someone says "bless you" in response to your sneeze?  No.  You don't.  You say, "Thank you" to be polite. The exchange is done and frankly, immediately forgotten.

It's the same when using cliches as you write.  In business communications, readers do not pay attention to cliches.  The mind, having seen the phrase so many times, is desensitized. It skips right over the phrase, sometimes ignoring it completely.  If you want people in your firm to pay attention and think that you are a leader, you're going to have to change the way you write.

Here are my four biggest cliche peeves:

1. Enclosed please find.  Now, really.  Would you talk this way?  Would you actually walk into a partner's office, hand him or her a file and say, "Enclosed please find"?  I doubt it.  Write the way you talk.  It's much better to say, "I am attaching a copy of the blankblank."

2.    Please don't hesitate to call.  Practically all letters explaining anything ends with this boring phrase.  Would someone hesitate to call if they had a question?  Nope.  Not in this day and age of instant response.  It's much better to say..........nothing.

3. As you know.  This is dangerous.  You are making an assumption that the reader must certainly know about the issue you are about to discuss.  What if they don't?  All you have accomplished is to point out how ignorant they are.  They may feel uncomfortable.  "Gee," they think.  "I should have known that." Or, "Wow.  Someone is leaving me out of the loop."  Instead of your reader appreciating your communication, now they are not feeling so great about what they have just read.  Hmmm....not exactly the goal.

4.   If you will.  This cliche started about 10 - 15 years ago. I don't know who started it but if I see them, I am going to lodge my complaint -  in writing.  I can't think of another phrase that emphasizes uncertainty or that questions your confidence.  "If you will?" If you will what?  I hear that dang phrase on the radio almost every day. All this phrase does is to undermine any strong statement you make, if you will.

That's only four of thousands of cliches. I have a list. My suggestion is: if you're going to use a cliche, use one that is more recent - like, "voted off the island."  Yeah.  I like that.

PS: For a paralegal webinar on The Brave New Writer: Using Corporate Storytelling to Achieve Leadership, go to www.knowparalegal.com.  


"Keeping Current Can Be Hard to Do for Law Librarians"

I bet! In fact, I've often thought that being a law librarian would be a most interesting job. Just think about everything you would learn!

"Librarians are curious people. We like to skim magazines and books, we like to surf the Web and we have some interest in a lot of topics. A former co-worker used to say that librarians are 'trivial' in that we are always picking up trivia -- a definite asset when one needs to keep current in their profession.

"I was familiar with blogs, wikis and social software before I wrote 'The Many Hats of a Law Librarian: Part 3.'

[snip]

"So, keeping current has two parts: awareness of new or changing resources/activities and appreciation of possible uses or impact in your institution. Or, there may not be a use in your library. Mash-ups look to be a fun technology, but I do not see a need for it at my institution at this time. Law firm librarians may find it more interesting.

"Keeping current is not just for technology advances, although technology does drive much of the change and activity. My 'Hats' series [of articles] is an attempt to describe how the Internet and electronics have impacted and continue to impact our profession. Our traditional hats as modified by technology means current awareness crosses more lines and covers more topics than ever."

Author Tricia Kasting is a reference/government documents librarian at Hofstra University School of Law's Deane Law Library in Hempstead, N.Y.


"Biglaw Plods Towards Mastodon's Fate"

Goodness, gracious, this is a remarkable discussion about the future of big law firms! Thanks to lawyer, author, & blogger Robert J. Ambrogi for highlighting it in Legal Blog Watch:

"When the general counsel of a major corporation says that the current model of the large law firm is heading towards extinction, ears perk up throughout the legal industry. That is precisely what happened after Sun Microsystems GC Mike Dillon wrote on his blog last week that Biglaw is going The Way of the Mastodon. His thesis is that large law firms exist primarily as aggregators of specialized legal expertise -- by combining multiple legal disciplines, firms can provide 'one stop shopping' for their clients. That used to make sense, in the days before the Internet when it was inefficient for a company to hunt down all the specialized legal talent it might need. But with the Internet, the model is changed, Dillon says."

If you work for a big law firm, I strongly recommend reading the entire post!


"Delegation Day in the Law Firm"

Found this interesting post at the morepartnerincome blog which is sponsored by Juris,Inc.:

"Hildebrandt’s Rees Morrison passes along a simple but clever technique for encouraging attorneys to improve efficiency by finding delegable tasks for non-lawyer members of the team.  The idea comes from the corporate world but should work to everyone’s benefit in a law firm as well. The law department asked its attorneys collectively to identify 20 activities that the lawyers were doing but that could be handed off to paralegals, administrative assistants or other support persons.

"The panelist sharing the law department’s experience noted that staff members were energized by the initiative. What attorneys were happy to hand off was refreshing and challenging to others.  Given the results, the department expanded its goal and accomplishments well beyond the original 20 activities."

Recommend reading this entire post "about how to do things better" by author Tom Collins, founder & former President of Juris, Inc.


"Orrick's Staffing Moves Pay Off -- Will Other Firms Follow?"

So, would you want to work in Wheeling, West Virginia? Read all about the separation of staff from lawyers in this article from The Recorder:

"When Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe announced it would move scores of support staff to a small industrial town in West Virginia, lawyers inside and out were skeptical of the quality of work and the return on investment.

"Five years later, the 980-lawyer firm says it's saved more than $20 million thanks to the Global Operations Center in Wheeling, W.Va. -- all without diminishing its services.

"But even with the purported success, most other large law firms still haven't jumped to copy it for themselves. Leaders say savings wouldn't be significant for their firms and the cost of splitting attorneys from staff would be too high [emphasis added].

"'We're not like a big corporation,' said Francis Milone, chair of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which employs 1,300 lawyers. 'We depend very heavily on personal relationships between lawyers and staff [emphasis added], and it would be a very substantial change and disruption if we told people you either don't have a job or you can move to wherever.'

"Consultants say that law firms will eventually have to bite the bullet, especially with the ever-increasing cost of doing business, amplified by the recent round of associate salary hikes.

[snip]

"The firm hung its "O" on the old Wheeling Stamping building in the spring of 2002 and fielded more than 6,000 applications for 73 positions [emphasis added]. Now with 160 employees, the around-the-clock center handles everything from computer network management and help desk services to billing and collections as well as library services, human resources administration and marketing research. Most recently, the firm even added paralegals to the mix [emphasis added]."

Really, what do you think about working in an office described as, "No lawyers practice here, just those who support them"?


"The Data Boom: Can Law Firms Profit?"

Yeah, oh, yeah! Read how in this Legal Technology article about how MoFo responded when a small client was hit with a huge discovery request:

"In the fall of 2005, a small Israeli technology startup came to San Francisco's Morrison & Foerster with a lawsuit -- and, soon enough, a problem.

[snip]

"The stakes weren't particularly high -- just a few million dollars. But after the case was filed, the defendant hit back with an electronic discovery request -- every relevant e-mail, Microsoft Word file, spreadsheet, you name it -- so onerous that its cost alone would take a fair chunk of any judgment.

"'We saw that it was going to take several hundred thousand dollars to do this,' says Oz Benamram, director of knowledge management and Israel practice counsel at MoFo. In fact, there was nothing terribly unique about this situation. As more correspondence and information is stored electronically, e-discovery is requiring more time, and more dollars, than ever before.

"What was different was MoFo's solution. Realizing that the standard way of reviewing documents -- having teams of associates, or lower-priced contract attorneys, sift through anything that could be relevant, deciding what was responsive and had to be turned over, and what was privileged and needed to be kept -- wasn't going to cut it, the firm suggested a radical approach: automate almost everything."

Be sure to read the PROFIT CENTER? section at the very end of this article.


Optimize Information Management Operations with Interwoven

Good old index cards are surely not of much use for law firms or legal departments with thosands & thousands of files. Read how Frost Brown Todd upgraded to Interwoven:

"...Frost Brown Todd LLC, an AMLAW 200 law firm, has adopted Interwoven Records Manager to enable comprehensive information management.

"Combined with Interwoven WorkSite, the industry-leading document management solution, Interwoven Records Manager enables law firms to optimize their file room operations and bring together paper and electronic documents and e-mail under a uniform information retention policy. The solution is seamlessly integrated into the user's working practices, allowing professionals to participate and engage in the records process without sacrificing productivity.

"Frost Brown Todd (FBT) was formed through the 2000 merger of two premier regional law firms, a union that brought consistent rankings in The National Law Journal's NLJ 250 and the AmLaw 200 -- as well as introducing new information management challenges. In 2005, with its user population reaching 900 attorneys, paralegals, and staff, the firm grew concerned about its ability to effectively manage the documents in its possession.

"'Post merger our records management challenges were steep. We were reliant on a series of index cards, access databases and outside vendor databases for finding information. Our file rooms were spread across multiple offices and floors, which made it very challenging to track our files. Each site was handling records differently. Our need for space and better organization led us to search for a long term solution for managing both paper and electronic records,' said Paul Bromwell, CIO at Frost Brown Todd."


"Rise of Paralegals"

Although you must be a paid subscriber to the Dayton Business Journal to read the complete article (& I'm not!), thought the part you can read was interesting:

"Betty White has worked as a paralegal for Sebaly Shillito & Dyer's Dayton office for 18 years and has held the managing paralegal position for the past 10.

"But White has spent the past two decades doing more than just sorting through legal documents. She travels with lawyers to meet with clients, helps clients prepare documents and helps decide what information is necessary for a case, among a slew of other tasks."

The photo sidebar includes this info:

"Helping out: Betty White is a paralegal with the Dayton law firm of Sebaly, Shillito and Dyer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that paralegal employment will increase 27 percent in the next seven years." [Emphasis added.]

BTW, the firm's website posts profiles of all its paralegals!