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.


Helen Raschke Pro Bono Award

Must read this very inspiring article from the The Black Hills Pioneer (SD)

"If you were to talk to Helen Raschke of Lead, she would tell you that the best years of her life were spent doing pro bono work because she was helping people in trouble.

"In April of this year, Raschke was honored as an award was given in her name for the work she did for 16 years as a Private Attorney Coordinator -- a job that didn't exist before she started at West Texas Legal Services in Wichita Falls, Texas. The Helen Raschke Pro Bono Award will be awarded annually to the most helpful legal assistant/secretary for a pro bono attorney. In her speech before announcing the first recipient of the award, Raschke said, 'They all need to be valued and appreciated for enabling more legal services to be provided to the poor [PDF]. This new award will be a token of our admiration, respect and appreciation.' She also added, 'The secretary could make or break your day.'"

Helen's sure got that right!


"Beware the Hidden Costs of Bad Formatting"

Pretty poor reaction to need for increased training given that documents produced by law firms are so important!

"When talking to law firms about training, I often hear the following statements: 'It's so easy, you don't need training'; 'If you can't learn it in an hour, it's not worth knowing'; and my favorite, 'We're getting documents out the door.'

"Law firms often use arguments like those mentioned above to skimp on training. However, there can be real bottom-line consequences to this kind of thinking. Training your users on proper document formatting can mean the difference between a document that will cost your firm unnecessary time, money and productivity and one that won't. For example, you can compare two visually identical 30-page Word documents side by side. They may look exactly the same, but one could require 2 1/2 minutes to make three basic changes while the other takes more than 60 minutes. What makes the difference? Formatting!

"Document formatting is not a sexy topic, but if you run the dollars on how much money it saves, you quickly realize how important a consideration it really is. A document that is poorly formatted [PDF] behind the scenes is full of tabs, hard returns and manual numbering. With these documents, every time text is added or deleted, someone must go into the text and remove tabs, adjust hard returns and page breaks and manually renumber the paragraphs. All formatting is direct formatting so that if the point size for 50 paragraphs needs to be changed, all 50 paragraphs must be formatted."

Good examples of formatting problems are included in the complete article.

Author Roberta Gelb, a member of the Law Technology News Editorial Advisory Board, is also president of Chelsea Office Systems Inc., based in New York.


"D.C. Law Firm Suspends Woman Who Worked as Escort"

ABC News finds another person involved in the growing D.C. Madam scandal:

"A legal secretary at one of Washington's most prominent and well-connected law firms, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, has been suspended after telling her bosses she secretly worked at night for the escort service run by the so-called D.C. Madam, Jeane Palfrey.

"The woman both serviced clients and, at times, helped to run the business, Palfrey told ABC News in an interview to be broadcast on '20/20' Friday.

"The firm said it would not make her name public.

"According to e-mails the woman sent to Palfrey on her Akin Gump account, she 'enjoyed and even missed' the work she did at night for Palfrey, who has been charged by federal prosecutors with running a large scale prostitution ring.

[snip]

"According to the e-mails provided to ABC News by Palfrey, the Akin Gump woman was interested in helping to restart the escort service after Palfrey had closed it, suggesting it could be done from the Akin Gump offices.

[snip]

"'I think that handling the phones 4 to 5 nights a week is a very fair offer and would be something that I could easily do, even with my paralegal duties as they could pretty much be done simultaneously in front of a computer,' she wrote."

This is just sad, very sad.


"Survey: Admin. assistants important"

Okay, that's the good news. The bad? In this article, paralegals are equated with administrative assistants:

"Eighty-five percent of U.S. executives believe their administrative assistants are important to their success, a nationwide staffing-service survey says.

"Of 150 senior executives at the nation's 1,000 largest companies surveyed, 48 percent said their administrative assistant's role was very important to their success, the OfficeTeam survey said.

[snip]

"OfficeTeam noted Administrative Professionals Week would be observed in the United States April 22-28. Many executives that week recognize the work of clerical employees such as administrative assistants, receptionists, paralegals and others."


"Legal secretaries in short supply"

Has our firm or company experienced this staffing problem? Are you doing more secretarial work as a result?

"They might not have the fancy degrees, academic honors or journal publications that usually impress law firms, but there's nobody more sought after right now than legal secretaries.

"'There really is a true supply problem,' said Steve Ferber, director of human resources at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. 'We've had trouble even filling an internship program.'

[snip]

"To compensate for the shortages, salaries of legal secretaries have increased in recent years. In Pittsburgh, a new legal secretary might start in the upper-$20,000-a-year range, but experienced secretaries can earn more than $60,000 _ more if they work overtime."


"Technology and Legal Secretaries"

Next big outsourcing move -- legal secretaries? [Text & links by Ron Friedmann]

"Starting in the early 1990s, I noticed that secretarial work was changing as a result of widespread lawyer use of PCs. Yet I have seen few articles about this much less smart management reaction.

"Already in 1991, I thought secretarial roles needed re-thinking. By 2003, when the main reaction seemed to be tinkering with the ratio, I wrote The Future of Legal Secretaries (Legal Times, May 2003). It suggests testing the concept of secretarial teams.

"That article emphasizes matching needs and resources more effectively. Today, law firms have a new option to do so and, at the same time, recast the role of the legal secretary. Earlier this year CBF, a secretarial and document processing outsourcing company, retained me to write a white paper. In it, I explain why outsourcing some secretarial and document processing tasks makes sense. The reasoning applies to many law firm operations."