This article was originally published by Debra Bruce at Raising the Bar Law Practice Management Thoughts and Tips on May 1, 2012.  Debra is President of Lawyer-Coach LLC.   She draws on her extensive legal experience, as well as a degree in Psychology and well over 500 hours in training as a professional coach, to help lawyers improve their management skills, increase productivity and bring in more business.

A virtual paralegal relationship is not the solution for every solo or small firm attorney. After consulting with many prospective attorney-clients over the last 3 years, I’ve begun to recognize some repeating patterns. You may not be ready for a virtual paralegal relationship if several of these warning signs resonate:

1.) You don’t like email as a primary form of communication. Virtual paralegals are not physically present in your office. They typically work from a home office or other remote location. Because schedules vary, email often becomes the primary form of communication for making assignments, following up on deadlines, and discussing case strategies. Phone calls and text messages are usually reserved for the most pressing matters.

2.) It upsets you to reach a virtual paralegal’s voicemail. Successful virtual paralegals are business owners just like you. They have a number of clients, phone consultations, and business appointments. Most virtual paralegals do not have in-office employees to help answer the phone. I suggest an email to schedule a phone consultation if you find yourself playing the phone tag game. After a service contract has been signed, many virtual paralegals will provide a cell phone number allowing attorney-clients to bypass business answering services.

3.) You object to signing a typical professional service contract. Attorneys are masters at writing and critiquing contracts. Because we are contracting with “the masters,” most virtual paralegal business owners have hired attorneys to prepare service contracts. While some contract terms might be negotiable, the basic terms of the contract form are probably not going to be negotiable. Don’t expect us to ignore the advice of the attorneys we have paid to represent us.

4.) You state that you want to protect yourself against a bogus lawsuit. Everyone wants to protect themselves against bogus lawsuits, but if you actually make this statement to a virtual paralegal, you are communicating that you do not trust him or her…period. There absolutely must be a foundational level of professional trust and respect for the relationship to have a chance at success. If some level of trust and respect is not present, then you are not ready for the relationship or you are talking to the wrong virtual paralegal for you.

5.) You are not willing to disclose the oursourced relationship to your clients. ABA Form Opinion 08-451, Lawyer’s Obligations When Outsourcing Legal and Nonlegal Support Services, August 5, 2008, provides: “appropriate disclosures should be made to the client regarding the use of lawyers or nonlawyers outside of the lawyer’s firm, and client consent should be obtained if those lawyers or nonlawyers will be receiving information protected by Rule 1.6.” Lawyers may want to add specific language to engagement letters or fee contracts concerning the client’s payments for outsourced services. (For further reading, check the resources listed below.

6.) You expect to pay a highly specialized professional paralegal the same hourly rate you pay an in-office inexperienced hourly employee. The old adage “you get what you pay for” goes without saying. Professional paralegals have invested time and money to achieve their professional status. Paralegals save attorneys time. Clients benefit from more thorough legal representation at reduced fees. Paralegals often do whatever it takes to get the job done, but you should expect to pay paralegal rates if a paralegal is performing the task.

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