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  Feature

Working with a Virtual Assistant: What Lawyers and Administrators Should Know

September 2008
You may not be ready or able to hire a full-time assistant. The emerging industry of virtual assistants may be able to help you in a timely, cost effective way.

We all know that it takes a great deal of work to keep a law firm running, let alone make it successful. For the many attorneys hanging out their own shingle and the law firm administrators who are required to get more done while staying within a tight budget, help is available in the emerging Virtual Assistant industry.

Virtual Assistants are independent professionals who provide varying levels of administrative, creative and/or technical support to businesses and there are many VAs who specialize in “legal”.

There are several benefits to working with a legal VA over hiring an employee:

 

  • Some practices are not yet to the point where they need assistance every day. Even if a single attorney does not have enough work to keep a part or full time employee busy, a VA can provide experienced assistance on a project by project or hourly basis.
  • No hidden costs associated with becoming an employer or increasing the firm’s staff – no taxes, FICA, worker’s comp, unemployment insurance or retirement benefits to worry about
  • No sick, holidays or vacation days
  • No need to supply space, equipment, supervision, training or software licenses
  • No overtime costs nor do you have to pay for idle time

 

What do you need to work with a VA?

 First and foremost, you need to feel comfortable communicating with anyone performing services for the firm virtually. That communication can be by written word, voice direction or even texting – whatever works for you and the VA.

Next, you need to know which tasks you wish to delegate to your VA. For solos, anything which is not directly related to client generation/service should be considered and larger firms benefit by removing tasks such as initial drafts transcription from in house processes.

Third, you should consider whether or not the VA has any current clients who are willing to provide a reference.

Finally, while not absolutely necessary, it is best if your VA is a member of the established VA industry associations – the IVAA, VANA, etc.

Additional factors you should consider before hiring a VA include:

 

  • Does the VA have a complete grasp on confidentiality and how it applies in a law practice? What safeguards are in place to protect your firm and client information?
  • Is the VA fully familiar with legal terminology and processes?
  • Does the VA come to the relationship with the proper software, technology and skill set?
  • Who will be responsible at the firm for receiving and finalizing completed projects?
  • Will you allow a VA direct access to the firm’s computer/network or what manner will be used to securely transfer the files and information?
  • How do you get in touch with your VA should you encounter a problem or have an emergency?
  • All of a VA’s processes and procedures, including turn around times, costs and invoicing, should be clearly outlined in the contract you sign before starting any work. Do not work with any VA without a signed contact – this is to ensure that at the outset the relationship is established as one of a contract worker and not employer/employee.

Now that you’re convinced it’s time to find a VA, where will you find one?

One way to locate a qualified VA is through the recognized industry associations such as the International Virtual Assistants Association. The IVAA maintains a listing of certified VAs who have met various requirements and/or have undergone testing to receive their certifications.

Given that legal work requires a higher standard, I always recommend that attorneys look for a VA who holds the IVAA’s EthicsChecked™ certification. Only those who pass a rigorous written test with real life scenarios can qualify for this certification.

A list of EthicsChecked VAs is locate at the IVAA site.

The IVAA also has a Request for Proposal system where those looking for a VA can post their needs and get responses from qualified candidates. The IVAA RFP system can be found here.

The IVAA is not the only organization for VAs – it’s just one of the oldest and most respected. A full listing of all VA organizations can be found on the Alliance for Virtual Business site.

 

How Do You Work With A VA?

The “how” depends on many factors: what size is the firm, what technology is in place, what equipment are end users most familiar and what processes are used to administer the business functions of the practice.

Also, many VAs come to the relationship with their own technology and proven systems already in place. Certainly, if you are not comfortable with technology or do not have the time to invest in researching and putting together your own technology, seek out a VA who offers the systems as well as the service.

When you think about it, the Internet provides a vast array of processes, services and methods to exchange information. Some more secure than others. While I do not believe there is any requirement for attorneys NOT to use e-mail, I have and will continue to advise any and all who will listen to remove e-mail from their processes, if possible. Along with security issues, e-mail is not reliable and has administration, maintenance and storage costs.

A few options to securely work in tandem with a VA are available through some longstanding and therefore trusted web based services. However, this does not include any FREE service.

I caution every attorney not use any free account, including Google, to store, transfer or share client files. Why? Read the Terms of Service! Almost every free service Terms of Service (TOS) generally state that although the site owner will not “share” your information with others, it does not say they will not collect or review/use your (and your client’s) information internally. That means your files could be viewed or stored indefinitely and used by that “free” service to whatever end they deem appropriate.

So, how do you get the work back and forth with your VA?

One great way to accomplish the transfer is through secure upload/download to a password protected page on a secure web server. This can be the VA’s server, your own web based server or that of a third party, such as 37 Signal’s BackPackIt.com. In a nutshell, you sign up, log in and securely upload/download files to a specific web page.

Another way to send large files securely is through companies such as SendThisFile.com. You enter an e-mail address, upload the password protected document and SendThisFile e-mails the recipient a link to click on to securely download the file(s). I am advised that SendThisFile destroys all information held on its servers as part of their routine business functions – meaning after a certain number of days, not even their techs would be able to reconstruct your file.

Lastly, I once read that speaking is seven times faster than writing and four times faster than keyboarding. This is what makes digital dictation (via phone, portable units and/or software) a great method for attorneys to transfer documents, notes and instructions to their VA.

No matter how you end up arranging the transfer of files, working with a VA can increase any size firm’s productivity, lower costs and literally allows firms to get more done with less – less resources, less time and less stress!

 

Resources

ABA SoloSez ListServ: http://www.legaltypist.com/solosez.htm

Technolawyer: http://www.legaltypist.com/technolawyer.htm

The Legal VA: http://www.thelegalva.blogspot.com

VA Organizations:

International Virtual Assistants Association http://www.legaltypist.com/ivva.htm

Virtual Assistant Networking Association: http://www.legaltypist.com/vana.htm

Computers/Equipment:

MicroCenter www.microcenter.com

TigerDirect: www.legaltypist.com/tigerdirect.htm

 Recording/Transcription Equipment:

Novuscript http://www.legaltypsit.com/novuscript.htm

NCH Swiftsound: http://www.legaltypist.com/nch.htm

Express Scribe Transcription Software: http://www.legaltypist.com/scribe.htm

Unified Messaging:

Onebox http://www.legaltypist.com/onebox.htm

Ring Central http://www.legaltypist.com/ringcentral.htm

 

See, http://www.legaltypist.com/mpi.htm for links to recent attorney discussions of just a few of the security issues one faces with e-mail.

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About the Author

Andrea Cannavina has been in the legal and virtual assistant (VA) industries for 20+ years. She is the CEO of Law Firm Solutions, and is a Master Virtual Assistant.

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