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.


Outsourcing to India? Lawyers from India don't like it anymore than lawyers from the U.S.

Apparently, not all lawyers in India are crazy about the outsourcing trend heating up in India and other lower-cost developing nations.  According to Merinews, written from India, Legal Process Outsourcing is the latest and hottest trend. Big corporations are reaping the benefits. New job opportunities are being created. LPOs (Legal Process Outsourcing) seem to have a bright future in India in the coming years.
Major corporations benefit from having work done at a quarter of the price, while the developing countries benefit from the huge influx of income and job creation. The latest industry to join the outsourcing rat race is the legal sector. Legal outsourcing has already created 12,000 job opportunities in India alone and this figure is expected to rise to as many as 79,000 by 2015.
But the response from young Indian lawyers seems to be less than positive. Ramneek Sidhu, from Delhi Law School says, “After investing three years in law school, I don’t want to be caught dead working as a clerk in an LPO.”
Nishita too agrees with this view and further adds, “A lawyer in an LPO is definitely earning good money but at the same time is not justifying his/her profession. There is no direct litigation involved which is the essence of being a lawyer.”
Brij, a young attorney working with an LPO feels quite differently to both Ramneek and Nishita. He believes that he is making a sound progress in his career graph by working with an LPO. He says, “Many lawyers nowadays, whether in India, the US or the UK rarely see the inside of a court room. Working within an LPO and not a law firm allows me to keep in sync with the latest developments in US law. The legal thought process that any young attorney must develop over time comes from studying, reading and writing legal briefs and memoranda. I hope that I demonstrate my passion and emotion for law in the arguments I raise in the legal motions and documents I prepare. "
Mark Ross from the outsourcing group Lawcribe, is quoted as saying, "we are only in the nascent stages of this exciting and emerging industry. He says, “In the course of the next two to three years, a vast number of qualified Indian attorneys will be working within the industry. I believe the Indian government and the Bar Association will be left with no alternative other than to formally open up the market to foreign law firms and allow Indian attorneys to practice US and UK law from within India’s borders."
From attorneys to paralegals, outsourcing is weathering opposition, controversy and still some success.  Lawscribe, a recent sponsor to one of our Paralegal SuperConferences addressed the audience on how clients and law firms will save money by outsourcing attorney and paralegal functions to India.  Unfortunately, the message the audience chose to hear was "The client will save money and the firm will make more.  Unfortunately, you will lose your job."  Needless to say, Lawscribe was not a big hit on the Paralegal circuit.
While the company was upset by the response of the audience, they say someone should have told them the audience would not be receptive.  My response was that they should have done their homework and chose another way to deliver the message.  I offered to help but they refused.  My opinion was that the approach they should have taken was to teach attorneys and paralegals how to outsource and at the same time bring up their own position another rung on the ladder by absorbing more sophisticated and diversified assignments.  It's the only way that outsourcing will work.
This is not the first time outsourcing has reared its head.  Years ago, litigation support companies such as Quorum Litigation, outsourced coding to the Philippines.  This is not a new concept.  Fear ran amok attorneys and paralegals then.  But what happened was, clients saved money, firms made more and paralegals and attorneys dropped the lowest common tasks to the lowest competent level.  Rarely now, do you see paralegals coding.
It will be interesting to see if outsourcing to India takes off as predicted or flak from both countries prevents it from succeeding.

Harvard 3Ls visit India...

...& investigate outsourcing of work for attorneys & paralegals:

[F]or 3Ls Shaun Mathew and Vikram Thomas, the fact that legal offshoring is in its infancy makes this the right time to study it. And, as children of professionals who emigrated from India to the U.S., they have their own experience with an earlier chapter of globalization.

“'Our idea was to go to India and see firsthand what the industry looks like today,' said Mathew.

“'Obviously, these firms are still in the client-building mode,' said Thomas, 'and there’s a lot of spin.' One example is the claim that a firm hires only graduates of the national law schools—a pool of less than 1,000 law students out of tens of thousands matriculating in India each year. In fact, Thomas and Mathew found few top law school graduates working in the firms.

"The companies also claim they are focused on high-end legal work, says Mathew. In fact, although many of the firms they visited aspire to take on more complex tasks as they gain client confidence, right now most offer only document preparation and litigation support for corporations."


Illinois Paralegal Association Asks Firms Not to Outsource

Don't know, at this point, if it's possible to turn the rushing tide toward outsourcing of legal work. But I applaud the IPA's attempt:

"Ruby Prasad’s legal research and briefs regularly find their way into courts across the United States despite the fact her workstation is located 8,000 miles away in India.

"Prasad is among the 200 lawyers working for Chicago-based Mindcrest Inc., which has an outsourcing facility in Mumbai.

"Mindcrest and other legal outsourcing firms are experiencing explosive growth. Mindcrest is 10 times the size it was two years ago.

[snip]

"Forrester Research projects legal outsourcing will be a $4 billion industry by 2015, creating 79,000 jobs in India alone.

[snip]

"But the trend has caused some concern for the Illinois Paralegal Association.

"The 1,500-member organization’s board of directors distributed a letter [PDF] to 300 Chicago area companies asking them to use paralegals instead. The letter stated that work done by paralegals is quality controlled and cost efficient. It added that experienced paralegals perform high-level substantive work under direct supervision of an attorney at lower billing rates than attorneys."


New Legal Outsourcing Service For Lawyers

Here's an interesting concept in outsourcing -- do it yourself!

"LawSourcing.com today announced their beta launch. This free site is a resource for licensed attorneys to obtain assistance for projects. This is ideal for lawyers in small firms who may not have available assistance to prepare documents or do research that is needed to prepare a case. It is also available to handle the business needs of running a successful law firm. LawSourcing.com has a growing database of legal support personnel who are qualified to lend assistance on a contract basis for one time or regular work.   

"'After talking with many professionals who are either in-house council or belong to smaller firms, we have found a common thread: the desire to streamline processes while attempting to reduce overhead,' says Chad King, co-founder of LawSourcing.com, 'Outsourcing is an ideal way to handle legal projects without the expensive overhead of hiring a full time associate. It's about time lawyers had this proven, reliable resource that other professions have had available to them for years.' LawSourcing.com finally provides the means of finding professionals who are available to outsource the daily projects that need to be completed."


"The Inside Scoop on Law Firm Outsourcing"

Practical advice about law firm outsourcing from White & Case's administrative partner:

"Although law firms have traditionally outsourced services like security, travel or mail, the allure of Thomas Friedman's 'flat' world has some law firms looking hard at whether to outsource other functions. The options are no longer limited to an outside vendor running a service in-house. Instead, firms face an impressive array of options offered around the globe, from Chennai, India, to Wheeling, W.Va. Navigating these decisions requires thoughtful consideration of your business goals and careful planning.

[snip]

"When White & Case expanded its outsourcing arrangements to include its word processing, creative design and publishing functions, the critical factor aside from cost-efficiencies was the significant potential for improving client and lawyer service. By moving these functions to an outside global vendor, the firm eliminated duplication of staff and equipment, consolidated and cross-trained staff, improved cost efficiencies and set a better firmwide support platform to leverage its global capabilities and 24/7 service. Smaller offices are now able to access improved service on a 24/7 platform that notably upgrades their ability to serve both lawyers and clients.

[snip]

"Carefully research a vendor's history, capabilities and competitors and definitely follow up with their references. Speak to your peers at other law firms to see what works and doesn't and get additional referrals. Friends outside of the legal profession can share a wealth of information from their experience, since corporations have been outsourcing functions for longer.

[snip]

"Once the vendor has been selected, a detailed roll-out plan must be created. Thoroughly evaluate the work product during the transition phase -- including setting up a 'shadow' team that performs the same tasks for comparison. Consider having an on-site project manager from your vendor who will be available for daily communications and who will understand your business.

"It must be acknowledged that outsourcing decisions always make staff anxious -- and understandably so. It's crucial, therefore, that staff who are affected by the decision, whether they are moving or staying, be communicated with frankly and supportively. Once the dialogue gets past the anxiety stage, people are eager to look forward to the future and the new opportunities that may unfold."

Author Karen Asner, a commercial litigator and an administrative partner at White & Case in New York, oversees all administrative aspects of the firm's 36 offices and helps shape firm culture, policies and strategic business objectives.


"WNS bets on legal outsourcing"

More outsourcing of legal work, this time in Sri Lanka:

"WNS, a NYSE-listed business process outsourcing (BPO) major, is seeing a huge momentum in legal services.

"Riding high on the legal process outsourcing wave, WNS has started legal services in Sri Lanka about eight months back and now has over 30 lawyers there. It has also scaled up the existing Pune operations, with more than 80 lawyers to handle the legal services, says Smita Gaikwad, company spokesperson for WNS.

"Global spending on legal services is estimated to be at least over $250 billion, with the US accounting for more than two-thirds of the market. Conservative estimates of the current market potential for legal services outsourcing from the US alone are pegged at $ 3-4 billion. This comprises paralegal and research support, contract drafting and revising and contract management, library services, patent and trademark prosecution and litigation support."


"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."


"Let's Offshore The Lawyers"

Sure lots of us would agree with this sentiment, but what might it mean for paralegals?

"Mention offshore outsourcing, and Americans fume. But who would cry if we outsourced the work of lawyers, with their fat fees and endless strategies for adding years to litigation? Sounds like a great idea, but many might say it can't be done anyway. Legal work is too sensitive and technical to risk farming out to Asia.

"Try telling that to DuPont, the giant chemical company. On the seventh floor of an old office building on the outskirts of Manila, 30 Filipino attorneys, including three who have passed U.S. bar exams, are seated elbow-to-elbow with 50 other staff at long tables crammed with PCs. Working in three shifts seven days a week, they read, analyze, and annotate digital images of memos, payroll and medical records, old engineering specs, and other documents that might be used as evidence in DuPont legal cases.

"The operation is part of a tieup between DuPont and offshoring shop OfficeTiger that is testing the limits of how far legal services outsourcing can go. Attorneys and others in OfficeTiger's Philippines and India offices are helping out on more than a dozen projects, from monitoring old contracts and licensing agreements to managing documentary evidence for product-liability cases. 'We want to be the center of excellence for this whole area of offshore document management,' says DuPont assistant general counsel Thomas L. Sager.

[snip]

"That doesn't mean U.S. lawyers will be getting pink slips, or even lowering their hourly fees. They're still needed for developing arguments, writing briefs, and other trial work. But DuPont figures 70% of the labor in a typical insurance or liability case can be outsourced. U.S. law firms often bill around $150 an hour for document-processing by paralegals. 'Law firms historically have made much of their revenue on administrative and paralegal work you don't really need a lawyer to do,' says OfficeTiger Co-CEO Joseph Sigelman. Offshore providers such as OfficeTiger, bought in April by R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., charge around $30 an hour. That's possible because an attorney with five years of experience can be hired for around $30,000, including benefits, in the Philippines, whose legal system is similar to America's. That's half what a veteran U.S. corporate paralegal earns, and one-fifth what a first-year attorney can fetch in New York."

So, tell me, how can paralegals thrive & survive when attorneys work for less than $32/hour (!) in New York & D.C.? And Fortune 500 corporations outsource paralegal projects to attorneys in foreign countries who work for the same rate as paralegals?

Paralegals threatened again!


"Legal process outsourcing: 79,000 jobs on offer!"

Number of outsourced legal jobs expected to grow:

"Except for fighting court cases in New York or London for law firms there, Indian lawyers are doing everything else for their western counterparts - litigation support, contract review, patent writing and paralegal services.

"Legal process outsourcing as it is being called, has very high growth potential, and according to latest estimates, it can fetch 79,000 jobs in India by 2015.

"According to Nasscom [National Association of Software & Service Companies], estimates of current addressable market potential for legal services that can be outsourced from the US alone are pegged at $3-4 billion. It is estimated that only 2-3 per cent of the potential market has been tapped so far.

"'At present there are just a handful of companies which are into legal outsourcing. But the field has lot of potential... it needs time to grow,' says Kaviraj Singh, of Trustman Group, which is into legal outsourcing."