For those attorneys who have practiced for more than a decade, it is hard to divorce the role of the paralegal from paper. From maintaining case files to assembling copies of briefs to preparing binders for depositions or hearings, the role of a paralegal was hard to separate from work with documents. But as digital files slowly but surely eclipse paper files, the idea of the paralegal as office-bound is becoming outdated. This has given rise to virtual paralegals – remotely working professionals that can be leveraged by law firms on a part-time basis.

Many solo practices and small firms suffer from the lack of a true paralegal. Either attorneys pitch in to perform paralegal work or secretaries are enlisted to perform the role. The result may be inefficient use of attorney time or mistakes made by administrative assistants who lack the right training. A virtual paralegal can be an effective solution to this problem. By setting aside preconceptions of a paralegal as inherently tied to the office, you can avail your practice of a cost-effective solution for managing your matters and increasing attorney productivity.

What is a Virtual Paralegal?

A virtual paralegal is an experienced paralegal that works remotely from the law office that he supports. A virtual paralegal takes the concept of a virtual assistant and applies it to the law firm. Virtual assistants have become a very useful tool for many startups and small businesses. Virtual assistants are independent contractors who support clients by providing administrative, marketing, and technical services. As electronic filings and cloud-based practice management software proliferates, it has become possible for paralegals to operate outside of the physical law office, making use of virtual paralegals possible.

How Can a Virtual Paralegal Help You?

Small law and solo law firms in particular can gain a lot from virtual paralegals, as many attorneys at small firms or solo practices find themselves caught up performing day-to-day administrative tasks, rather than developing legal strategy or growing their practice. Virtual paralegals can carry out the mechanics of filing documents, preparing form pleadings, and drafting correspondence, leaving lawyers with the free time and resources to work on strategic projects.

Virtual paralegals cost far less than hiring a full-time, in-office paralegal. A law firm can hire a virtual paralegal to work for a set number of hours, thereby more closely aligning the amount they spend on paralegal services to the time actually worked. Because virtual paralegals operate as independent contractors vis a vis your firm, your firm need not incur overhead costs usually associated with hiring an employee such as health insurance, vacation time, or taxes. Your firm doesn’t need to provide the virtual paralegal with a computer or a work station either.

You may also be able to bill virtual paralegal time to a client. Attorneys have traditionally billed paralegal time on to clients and the use of a virtual paralegal, rather than an in-house paralegal, does not require a change in this practice. The Supreme Court has recognized the practice of billing clients for paralegal time and noted that paralegals serve a useful purpose of reducing costs for clients. Based on this reasoning, the Supreme Court has found paralegal time as well as attorney time to be recoverable at market rates where provided by statute. Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274 (1989); Richlin Security Service Co. v. Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, 128 S. Ct. 2007 (2008). Market rates vary state-by-state, however, and some states have adopted their own rules regarding paralegal utilization, so be sure to consult state law and local rules in your area when billing this work to clients.

Tips for Working with a Virtual Paralegal

Here are several steps to take to ensure you are getting the most out of your virtual paralegal:

1.  Select a paralegal with a background that aligns with your needs. The skills that you need in a paralegal will differ based on your practice and specific projects. For example, if you have a personal injury practice, you may need a paralegal with experience reviewing medical files, contacting insurance companies, and preparing settlement correspondence. If you have a high volume practice that involves a lot of filing, the more important skill may be that the paralegal have a thorough knowledge of e-filing.

2.  Decide on a secure means of transmitting data. Working with a virtual paralegal often means sharing confidential or sensitive information online. To secure this data, decide on a secure means to share documents and drafts. One option is to utilize cloud-based document repositories, such as those offered by box.com, which store data in encrypted form and allow your firm to control who can access data.

3.  Define the role ahead of time. When you engage a virtual paralegal, do your best to define the responsibilities the contours of her role. What will her responsibilities be? How many hours per week will you need assistance? Are there particular times of the year that you anticipate will be busier than others? Know the answers to these questions in advance so that your virtual paralegal understands your expectations.

4.  Establish channels of communication. When you work with a remote professional, communication is important. For starters, it is often helpful to set up a periodic check in meeting, particularly at the beginning of the relationship. Further, make sure that your paralegal knows the best way to reach you, whether that is by phone, email or text. Finally, if you have access to calendars and automated notification system, ensure that your paralegal receives the same notifications so that she can take action if you’re otherwise engaged.

Virtual paralegal services can offer law firms a wide range of help all while saving on costs. To guarantee the best possible outcome when hiring a virtual paralegal, be sure you know what you want to get out of the service and decide on channels of communication to ensure effective collaboration and secure transmission of data.