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Solos, small firms turn to virtual assistants

Remote employees help with paralegal services, answering phones and more on an as-needed basis

Cutting costs while balancing workload is an ongoing struggle for most solo and small firm owners.

“The big terror for a solo or small firm is inconsistent cash flow and worrying about overhead,” said Sheila Blackford, a practice management advisor for the Oregon State Bar in Tigard, Ore. “They don’t want to be obligated for bringing a person on board that they may not be able to afford, even if they need the help.”

But a virtual assistant — a remote individual who performs discrete tasks, including document preparation, paralegal services, digital dictation or front-desk duties such as answering the phone – can be the perfect fit.

Lawyers don’t have to worry about providing benefits or paying a regular salary, but can enlist the services of a virtual assistant on an as-needed basis. And they don’t have to worry about providing a physical space or purchasing additional equipment, such as computers or phones.

Leanna Hamill, a sole practitioner in Hingham, Mass., has used a virtual assistant for more than two years.

With a practice focusing on estate planning and elder law, Hamill said she found herself getting bogged down in documents.

“I was overwhelmed but not to the point of needing a full-time, actual employee — just sporadic help,” she said.

Hamill decided to try a virtual assistant and hasn’t looked back.

“Having a virtual assistant really fills in the gaps,” she said. “She is there when I have the work to give her and when I don’t have any work, I don’t have to stress about how I will make payroll in order to pay her.”

As needed, Hamill emails her VA about the task at hand and uploads the relevant documents onto a secure project management website. For an estate plan, for example, Hamill will interview the client and write the meat of the trust or the will. Working from templates that Hamill has provided, the VA will then input relevant information, including names and dates, and store the work on the site.

Hamill, who operates a networking group for attorneys, also has employed her VA to help out with tasks such as organizing events, handling email invitations and RSVPs and ordering food.

The virtual assistant bills Hamill monthly for her work.

For lawyers looking to try a virtual assistant relationship, Hamill suggested starting off with a small project to test compatibility.

“And don’t feel like you have to commit to staying with this person if you don’t mesh,” she added.

Blackford cautioned attorneys to remember that even though the assistant may not be in the same office, the Rules of Professional Responsibility still apply.

Model Rule 5.3 mandates that “a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer,” among other requirements.

“Lawyers must monitor (the work the assistant performs),” Blackford noted, “and remember they have the same obligations as if that person was in their physical space.”

Be sure to have the assistant sign a confidentiality agreement, as well, she said.

“The very act of signing underscores the seriousness of the assignment,” Blackford said.

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