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7
May

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.

Category : Tips | virtual paralegals
3
May

This article was originally published by Debra Bruce at Raising the Bar Law Practice Management Thoughts and Tips on December 13, 2011.  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.

The season is upon us! You know — the season of fa-la-la-la-la, holiday decorations, greeting cards, family parties, gift buying, travel plans, winter snow storms, and year-end business.  The list goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on….too much to do and not enough time.  If you make it to January 1, then your knee deep in a different set of tasks headed into tax season.

So what is a smart attorney or paralegal to do?  Organization is key, but who has time – or money — right now to implement complicated practice management software?

SOLUTION:  Pick one of these quick, easy and inexpensive online task management solutions.  Register for a free user name and pick a password.  Then start listing everything congesting your over-crowded mind.  Start with just the basics by listing the task and assigning a deadline.   That’s it!!  You can expand your vision and develop a more-rounded solution when the time crunch has eased.

  • RememberTheMilk.com: This solution has been specifically recommended for attorneys in several American Bar Association articles, and it is often referred to as RTM (if that milk thing bothers you).  It fits the above-mentioned criteria, but can be further expanded by building as many different lists as you can dream, assigning deadlines, priority levels, repeat intervals, tags and reminders.  The free version will get you started, but you might need to upgrade to a paid version to get the full mobility you want.
  • Todoist.com:  Easy integration with Gmail and Outlook, browser plugins and mobile access are all features which might lure you to consider this solution, but I suspect that the ability to create sub-tasks might be the one that snags you.  “Big things are composed by smaller things and smaller things are done by action.”  A call to action for incremental steps is critical to seeing completion of that large project.  You also might get a few more options on your reminders.
  • Toodledo.com:  Sub-tasks are also available here along with many options for customizing the alarms and reminders you want.  Folders, tags, contexts and sub-tasks help you zero in at the desired overview level.   Create your hotlist and analyze details to most efficiently complete similar tasks.  Set your alarms and reminders for email, iPhone, Twitter or sms.  This tool will also let you import tasks from other lists you have already created.
  • Todalist.com:    Making your list and checking it twice to see who is naughty and nice?  This one might be for you!  This handy tool’s claim to fame is being the easiest web-based to-do-list-maker. Make as many lists as you want, keep them or hand them out to your helpers.
  • Egretlist:  This i-Phone app is ideal for those of you having a love affair with Evernote.  Your to-do list syncs with Evernote to keep all your notes, memos and lists in the same place under the umbrella of one system. 

Before you commit 100% by investing lots of time and energy, it is always wise to test the tool on a couple of projects.  If you see that it is making a difference in your perspective and the management of your workload, then go a little deeper.  If not, then try a different tool until you find the one that fits you like a glove.

Category : Tools
24
Apr

This article was originally published by Debra Bruce at Raising the Bar Law Practice Management Thoughts and Tips on March 20, 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.

This week I had the privilege of participating in the virtual professionals round table discussion sponsored by The Paralegal Mentor.  After hearing each other’s stories as to how we ended up as virtual professionals in the legal services industry, the discussion quickly turned to technology.

The very next day Law Technology News published the article Virtual Paralegals Move Legal Work Online.  LTN’s news editor Brendan McKenna covered the bases by gathering information from at least 9 different paralegals, myself included, concerning the definition of virtual paralegal, inspiration for starting a virtual paralegal business, and the technology used.  McKenna even registers the preference of several paralegals to be described as freelance rather than virtual.

Participation in both of these discussions with at least 12 other virtual paralegal professionals led me to the following conclusions:

  • A top-notch virtual paralegal should have technology options in her toolbox.
  • There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to customizing a technology support package for a virtual paralegal partnership.  Different attorneys, different practice areas, different clients, and different cases require different tools.
  • The possible combinations of technology tools are endless, and those possibilities change daily.
  • The virtual paralegal should be a knowledgeable consultant who presents options and insists that the attorney be part of that decision-making process. These are not always easy decisions.  An attorney depends on the virtual paralegal for experience and expertise in this area.
  • The attorney may not review every available feature, but he should have a firm grasp of what tools are being used.
  • The virtual paralegal should stay abreast of software updates and alert the attorney when security weaknesses are discovered by the software manufacturer.  Together a decision can be made as to whether any changes are required.

Technology Toolbox: a few of our favorite things

 

File Sharing

Sugar Sync

Dropbox

Box

YouSendIt

Document and Word Processing

Microsoft Office

Google Docs

OpenOffice

PDF Files

Adobe Acrobat Professional

Legal Practice Management (Online)

Clio

Firm Manager

HoudiniESQ

Livia Legal

Rocket Matter

Legal Brief Tools

Best Authority

Calendars and Deadlines

Deadlines.com

Westlaw Legal Calendaring

Deadline Direct

Deadline and Filing Calculator

Category : Tips | Tools
24
Apr

This article was originally published by Debra Bruce at Raising the Bar Law Practice Management Thoughts and Tips on February 16, 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.

This month I want to discuss the most frequent questions I receive as a virtual paralegal.  Questions come from many different directions:  attorneys considering a virtual paralegal relationship, paralegals interested in working virtually, and curious lay people.  Ironically, for the most part, the same questions come from each group.

1.) How did you get started?

  • After over 15 years of actual law office experience and achieving my professional certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants, I was no longer satisfied with my work-life balance.  I invested 6 months of my time in researching the virtual assistant profession and studying the tools which were used for document exchange.  I examined how those tools could be applied to an attorney-paralegal relationship while still protecting ethical guidelines.
2.) How do you get work from attorneys?
  • Some attorneys and paralegals find Digital Paralegal Services on the internet using a variety of search terms.  Some have read articles I have written concerning the virtual paralegal profession.  Because of the tremendous interest, I have had many opportunities for interviews.  Most of the time, however, they come to Digital Paralegal Services through a personal referral.
3.) After an attorney finds you, what next?
  • We discuss the attorney’s support needs and paralegal specialization requirements.  I then consult my database of paralegals registered for virtual work located in the same state as the attorney.  Digital Paralegal Services requires that the paralegal has achieved professional certification through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and maintains required CLE credits.
  • Paralegal certification is verified with NALA.  Attorney licensing is verified with the corresponding state bar association.
  • The paralegal is presented an independent contractor agreement and fees are negotiated.  A telephone interview is scheduled to be sure both attorney and paralegal are satisfied.
  • When the attorney is satisfied and ready to proceed, a contract is presented which covers all areas of the relationship including confidentiality issues.  Conflict of interest checks are completed before work begins.
4.) What does it cost?
  • Rates vary according to the level of paralegal specialization required.  These rates are not to be confused with normal hourly employee rates.  Virtual paralegals are independent business owners who provide their own computers, software, office supplies and other tools.  They have no employee benefits, no vacation or sick time, and they do not receive overtime pay.  Typical rates run from $55 per hour to as much as one-third of the attorney’s hourly rate.
In closing, I want to recommend that attorneys include the following questions when interviewing  a virtual paralegal candidate:
  • How long have you been working virtually?
  • Is this a business for you, or a part-time endeavor?
  • What is the biggest problem you have encountered in working virtually, and how did you solve it?
  • Is there a potential for conflict of interest with your other clients, or previous positions?
  • How do you keep up with changing laws, rules and procedures in your area of expertise?
  • What tool do you recommend for file sharing and exchanging information?
  • What steps do you take to secure confidential information on your computers and in your home office?
  • Do you have backup or overflow support available?
Category : virtual paralegals
12
Feb
This article was originally published by Debra Bruce at Raising the Bar Law Practice Management Thoughts and Tips on January 12, 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 few months ago, one of my attorney clients called on his way home from a hearing to discuss the briefing schedule the judge had outlined for our case.  The judge had also clearly indicated his preference for electronic briefs with hyperlinks to the cited legal authorities.  I docketed the briefing deadline and began to research the additional steps required to provide the judge exactly what he wanted.

The first step for any litigation project is checking the applicable rules of civil procedure, county and local court rules.  I then downloaded several electronic brief samples and carefully examined the document organization.  It was easy to see why any judge would prefer this format.

Litigation support firms offer electronic briefs, but those services can be expensive.  You will definitely need to examine the size of your project and the available budget before deciding how you want to tackle your project.  A third party contractor would mean closing out the brief early to meet the vendor’s time requirements for the project.  This was just a small brief in the grand scheme of things.

After considering my options, I found some guides to help me prepare for my first electronic brief project.  The tips outlined below were very helpful.  I was happy to discover that my Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro software was the only software I needed to complete the project.

Guide To Creating Electronic Appellate Briefs  (Texas Supreme Court)

Video Guide To Creating Electronic Briefs (Adobe)

How Do I Hyperlink Court Briefs? (A2L Consulting)

E-Briefs, eBriefs and Electronic Briefs (A2L Consulting)

Electronic Brief Tip #1:  Be sure to set your PDF document properties so that the bookmark panel will be visible when the document is opened by the reader.  Modify the Bookmark text to clearly outline the organization of your document.  Check accuracy of links between bookmarks and document text.

Electronic Brief Tip #2:  Assemble PDF copies of all legal authorities several days before your deadline.  Give some thought to the download format.  Westlaw and Lexis offer several formats.

Electronic Brief Tip #3:   Be strategic in creating link destination points.  Your link from the List of Authorities will probably point to the beginning of the case.  (Example 1)  A link created in the body of the brief could point directly to the quoted text.  (Example 2)

EXAMPLE 1:

          List of Authorities Hyperlink – Set Link Destination at Case Intro

EXAMPLE 2:

Quoted Reference in Brief Body –

Set Link Destination at Quoted Text Within the Case

Multiple Applications

Creating bookmarks and hyperlinks requires extra preparation time, but the process adds organization and a professional appearance to your finished project.  The process can easily be applied to any lengthy document file including medical records, administrative records, document productions, briefs, pleadings with numerous exhibits and settlement brochures.  Links to the appropriate place in supporting documents will increase the likelihood that the reader truly understands the legal claims asserted on behalf of your client.

 

Category : Briefs | Tips
13
Dec

Today is December 13th, and as I write this article, I am looking at my 9-foot Christmas tree filled with ornaments triggering so many memories.  The 20-year old ceramic Santa from my dear sweet friend who is just like a sister…the plastic spoon snowman made by one of my children during preschool years, the sparkling blue and silver glitter ornaments of every shape and size for that year when we needed something new and fresh in our Christmas celebration…the small round glass ornaments from our first Christmas as husband and wife…the Texas ornament from a paralegal friend when I moved out of state…the oh-so fragile ornaments that belonged to my husband’s grandmother…the three wise men reminding me of the reason for the season…the special memorial ornament for my granddaughter Berkley.

Memories are important, and at this busy time of year, we often miss so many easy opportunities to create lasting, meaningful memories with people who matter.   Business relationships are important.  At the heart of those relationships are real people just like you and me – people with families.  People who have only so many hours and days with too many demands to fill that time.   Come to think of it, that sounds like every day in a legal professional’s life!

Why not grant your business associates a little mercy this year?  Give them the benefit of the doubt.  By letting them know this season is important to you, you might just unknowingly grant them permission to actually take time to enjoy the season and make lasting memories with the people most important to them.  These gifts can be budget-friendly, and the value is priceless to the recipient.

Other memories are not quite so easy during the midst of the added responsibilities of the season.  I just returned home after a few days away from the office to help my parents.  You see, my mom has developed dementia issues this year.  Some days are nearly normal, but increasingly the days present new challenges in communication, locating missing items, endless Medicare paperwork, managing medications and doctor visits.  My sister and I chose to create memories one day by setting aside the everyday tasks which will continue to demand our attention for years to come.  We took Mom out for a special lunch and some Christmas shopping.  We laughed and we laughed, but yet, my sister and I cried and cried in silence as we see Mom slipping away – not knowing if there will be another year to create Christmas memories with Mom.

There are 12 more days until Christmas…I hope you will join me in taking time to do what matters most with or for the people who matter most.  I don’t want to live in regret for missed opportunities to create lasting memories.

Category : Christmas | Holidays | Memories