This article by Cathy L. Ribble was originally published by Debra Bruce at Raising the Bar Law Practice Management Thoughts and Tips on November 29, 2011. 
Debra Bruce is President of Lawyer-Coach LLC. She practiced law for 18 years in several firms ranging in size from international mega-firm Baker Botts, to medium-size and even her own entrepreneurial firm. Debra focused on securities law and mergers and acquisitions, but also consulted to and assisted trial attorneys in a number of cases.  Debra 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. She also helps burned-out lawyers redesign their practices for greater fulfillment or transition to a new career.  Debra can also be found on Twitter: @LawyerCoach.

Solo attorneys throughout the United States are hearing the terms virtual paralegal and virtual legal assistant for the first time.  Today’s economy and the desire to keep a home-office practice are leading many solo attorneys to seek more information about virtual support.

What is a virtual paralegal?

The American Bar Association defines a legal assistant or paralegal as a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.  The virtual paralegal meets the ABA’s definition, but this paralegal is also good at working independently and is tech-savvy when it comes to sharing files and information via the internet.  Most virtual paralegals work as independent contractors from a fully equipped home office.

 Why should a solo attorney consider partnering with a virtual paralegal?

Many solo attorneys do absolutely everything for themselves.  While that may be an initial budget requirement for hanging out your shingle, you should consider a virtual paralegal partnership as soon as possible for these simple reasons:

  • Many tasks can be completed by a virtual paralegal who charges much less than the  attorney’s normal billing rate.
  • Virtual paralegal time may be billable to a client at rate higher than the contract rate charged.
  • Attorney time and mental energy is free for other client work at normal billing rates.
  • Specialized paralegal support might be available on a virtual basis at a less expensive rate than in your geographical area.

 What costs can I save by hiring a virtual paralegal working as an independent contractor as opposed to hiring a paralegal employee?

      Payroll taxes, employee benefits (holiday pay, sick leave, vacation pay, health and life insurance, 401k or other retirement benefits, professional dues, training expenses, coffee breaks), personal phone calls, overtime, office and parking spaces, computer hardware and software as well as other office equipment; and routine office supplies.

 What expenses are involved?

  • An hourly contract rate ranging from $40 per hour to as much as 30% of the attorney’s normal hourly billing rate for the time the paralegal works on your assignment;
  • Reimbursable expenses similar to those you would charge your client (including postage, mileage, copies, binding, court costs, research fees, etc.).

 How can I locate the right virtual paralegal for my practice area and jurisdiction? 

  • Internet or social media searches (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook) using a combination of the following search terms.  If no suitable results, drop the practice area and state from your search terms, then ask for referrals from the virtual paralegal firms which do appear.
[virtual paralegal] or [virtual legal assistant] + [your practice area] + [name of your state]

  • Check with local and state bar associations, as well as other attorneys

 What credentials should I look for when deciding on a virtual paralegal?

You should evaluate the paralegal’s education, training, work experience and  certifications.  Look at the requirements of the certifying organization, exam descriptions and CLE requirements.   Key National Paralegal Association Links will lead you to more information concerning NALA, NFPA, NALS and AAPI.

Most virtual paralegals who have made serious commitments to virtual work have invested in a website.  They often maintain a blog which will help you understand the paralegal’s writing skills.   Social media activity on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook will reveal a clear picture of a paralegal’s professional demeanor.   Ask about client base, current caseload and availability.

A virtual paralegal partnership means you can be solo and successful without going it alone.  Try it, you’ll like it!

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