Under rules of professional responsibility and guidelines for the utilization of nonlawyer assistants, paralegals and legal assistants work under the direction and supervision of an attorney. In other words, an attorney has a professional responsibility to direct and supervise the work of nonlawyer assistants. Failure to do so can result in serious consequences for an attorney, so it’s no surprise that supervision is one of the first concerns when retaining a contract paralegal or paralegal support service. (Another significant concern is that of confidentiality, which is not the subject of this particular article.) If you’re using a contract paralegal or paralegal support service that provides on-site services, supervision isn’t much of an issue. However, just as you don’t, most service-based businesses don’t work at their clients’ locations. Rather, they perform their services from their own place of business.
If you know me, you know I don’t often use the phrase “virtual paralegal,” but I do so today to emphasize that which causes concern for attorneys looking for support – the supervision of client work when utilizing off-site paralegal support. With the way I work, my attorneys provide just as much supervision and direction over my work as they would if I were working in their office as an employee so, to me, supervision doesn’t present much of a problem when retaining a support service. However, I realize that for attorneys who have never utilized a virtual paralegal, it can feel like an impassable barrier. To break down that barrier for you, here are a couple examples of how it works when working with a virtual paralegal, along with a few questions you may want to ask a prospective virtual paralegal or paralegal support service with whom you’re interested in working.
Attorney-virtual paralegal work scenarios
Scenario 1: You [the attorney] want to retain a virtual paralegal to draft an answer and cross-complaint to a petition filed against your client. You discuss the facts, issues, and theories of the case with your virtual paralegal and decide how to respond. You provide the paralegal with a copy of the complaint, relevant information, affirmative defenses and a sample response from a similar type of case (if necessary), and discuss filing deadlines and turnaround time. Then you simply turn your focus to other items on your to-do list while your virtual paralegal drafts the answer and cross-complaint. Once done, you receive a draft copy to review, mark up changes, and ask for the answer to be put in final form. You receive the document in final form, sign and file as usual. There’s absolutely no difference in work processes, except you don’t physically say “good morning” and “good night” each day. Your virtual paralegal will be in contact with you during the process with questions or clarifications; and, if you’re ever interested in the progress of the assignment, simply ask – just as you would if you were walking by your paralegal’s desk.
Scenario 2: You [the attorney] have retained a virtual paralegal to provide on-going support, meaning continual assigning of tasks and multiple assignments out at any given time. Just as before, there isn’t much difference between this scenario and having on-site support, except you don’t physically say “good morning” and “good night” each day. When you ask your virtual paralegal if s/he can do things for you, make sure you communicate any legal deadlines associated with the tasks and then, just as before, you can move on to other things while the tasks are being completed. Just as s/he would when assigned to multiple attorneys in a firm, your virtual paralegal regularly prioritizes and reprioritizes assignments as they come in and will return completed assignments to you as they are finished. Remember, unless your virtual paralegal has been hired as a telecommute employee, your virtual paralegal is a business owner (not an employee) and will turn around assignments according to his or her schedule and workload, so if you’re interested in receiving a particular assignment back within a specified time frame, be sure to ask if your paralegal is available to complete it within that time. As in scenario 1, you review the work product, work on it yourself, ask for changes, or approve as final.
If you’re concerned about tracking assignments, you may already have a tracking system in place. There’s no reason you can’t continue to use that system with a virtual paralegal. However, if you find you have a newfound interest in tracking assignments while working with a virtual paralegal, at least in the beginning until you establish a rapport with each other, then you can always set up a tracking system or ask your paralegal to provide you with regular status reports (weekly, bi-monthly, monthly, etc.) on assigned tasks. If you want to maintain a list of outstanding assignments yourself, there are many options available, including the use of ‘assign task’ features in existing practice management systems, Outlook, or even with a simple tracking spreadsheet. As do I, your virtual paralegal may even offer a collaboration system that you can use to assign tasks and track the status of assignments 24/7.
Again (and I say again, because I say this all the time), it’s all about communication. If you have effective communication, you’re always going to know what’s going on and the workflow process isn’t going to differ from that to which you’re accustomed, except for the “good morning”/“good night” thing (which you can still do if you really want to – just not in person).
Questions to ask a virtual paralegal
- How will tasks/projects be assigned?
- What’s your average turnaround time for this type of work?
- What is your process for completing assignments?
- How will we communicate on assignments?
- Will/can you communicate via [your preferred method (i.e., phone, fax, email, person, instant messaging, Skype, etc.)]?
- How will you keep me informed?
- Do you have a collaboration system for delivering/assigning tasks and tracking assignments?
- Are you familiar with [name of your preferred document/practice/collaboration system]?
If you’re uncertain or have a scenario that you can’t quite fit into one of the above, please give me a call. I’m more than happy to discuss your situation with you, address concerns, and help you identify solutions so you can confidently go out and find the support you need.