Technology is finally dragging the legal world into the 21st Century. Despite some courts’ continued insistence on receiving paper, you can e-file most of your briefs. Slowly, a jurisprudence of electronic discovery is starting to solidify through amendments to rules of civil procedure, the issuance of discovery-focused opinions, and court-blessed protective orders. Some attorneys are dabbling in more advanced search methods, including predictive coding.
One thing that has not changed in the legal world is the prevalence of inefficiently used legal support staff. The traditional model – onsite, full-time legal secretarial support that does not take into account the highly variable schedule and workload of attorneys – is outdated. For example, an attorney might have a greater need for administrative assistance during the close of fact discovery or leading up to an important hearing, but then have only occasional need for administrative assistance for the next two months. Nevertheless, with the traditional legal secretarial support model, the secretary works the same hours, regardless of how many hours she is actually used.
A cost-saving solution to the inefficient legal secretarial support model is using a virtual legal assistant or virtual paralegal. A virtual assistant is simply an administrative assistant that works remotely, rather than at your office. This is particularly useful for attorneys who travel frequently. Whether they are defending a deposition on the other side of the city, at trial on the other side of the country, or just burning the midnight oil at home, attorneys are constantly working remotely. It makes little sense to give a globally mobile attorney stationary support.
Most virtual assistants are hired through virtual assistance companies (as opposed to employees of the law firm itself). Pricing is based on flexible hourly packages. As a result, you can check your calendar from month-to-month and decide how many hours you will need and you pay less than you would to have a legal secretary sit idle at a desk waiting for work.
There are a wide variety of things that can be done to virtualize your office environment. Now that everything, from discovery to court filings to billing, is done electronically, your office almost certainly has the infrastructure in place to utilize a virtual assistant. Just go through the tasks that you have your legal secretary perform and it becomes apparent that those tasks can be done virtually:
- Screening potential clients: Virtual assistants can contact potential clients, run them through a series of questions that you design, and provide you with the information you need to determine whether they have a claim worth pursuing.
- Billing, invoicing, and bookkeeping: The transition to cloud-based software has made it even easier to utilize a virtual assistant to issue invoices, manage your books, and pay your firm’s bills. Most of the time you only need to give your virtual assistant user access to your software and she can easily handle these tasks.
- Time and calendar management: You likely use a calendaring program that syncs with your smartphone to manage your schedule. Just give your virtual assistant access to whatever software you are using, and she can set-up appointments and block out time. Travel arrangements are also easily handled remotely.
- E-filing: E-filing eliminated the need for handling tons of paper and messengering it to court. It also allows the filing process to take place entirely remotely. Your virtual assistant can create the relevant pdfs and manage the filing process.
- Electronic case file organization: Rather than having paper printouts take up your valuable (and often expensive) office space, the easier option is to store your case files electronically. A virtual assistant can keep your electronic files organized and up to date.
- Identifying potential expert witnesses: Searching for expert witnesses involves using the Internet and a phone. A virtual assistant is just as well equipped to perform these tasks as one sitting at a desk in your office. As with an in-person assistant, you just need to provide search criteria and explain the information for which you are looking.
Even if you have a legal secretary that you keep busy, a virtual assistant may be a good option to supplement her help during particularly busy times at your office. Hiring additional in-person legal staff on the fly for busy periods is not realistic for most practices given the physical office space restrictions and the cost of purchasing new computer and office equipment. You can also farm out particular tasks – such as case file management – to your virtual assistant, while your on-site legal secretary handles other tasks.
While the move away from paper to digital data has presented challenges for many attorneys, it also presents opportunities for reducing costs and increasing the efficiency of your practice. Utilizing a virtual assistant is one way that you can make the move to ones and zeroes work in your favor.