Monday, August 25, 2008

Virtual Paralegals Manage Cases at a Distance

In addition to overseas outsourcing, virtual paralegals may be the next cost-saving measure for law firms. Depending on how well you work independently, this could be a lucrative field with a fantastic commute and relaxed dress code.

Paralegals no longer have to be at arm's length from attorneys who need assistance with legal research or administrative tasks. In fact, they don't even need to be in the same country.

Internet connectivity has spawned a cottage industry of virtual paralegals who are hired as independent contractors and handle the same duties as their more traditional in-house colleagues.

As the modern workplace has evolved for lawyers, so too has it changed for enterprising support staff who launch their own businesses and often build client bases through word-of-mouth and professional connections made during their law firm years.

Paralegals are just a small part of the larger marketplace for virtual assistants, a marketplace in which businesses of all shapes and sizes can lean on administrative personnel who work from their home offices and leverage technology to create a less structured work day and more time for family.

Though the virtual assistant industry has experienced considerable growth in the last three years, virtual paralegals remain a relatively unknown resource.

Still, people like Cynthia Matthews are optimistic. The Wethersfield, Conn., resident began working in law offices in the 1970s and, after several decades in state employment, got the urge to return to the legal field. Several years ago, she went back to school to obtain an associate's degree in paralegal studies. She recently started advertising her services online as she attempts to build a side business while still working for the state Department of Public Utility Control.

Her desire is to get involved in real estate work and cater to in-state solo practitioners and firms with fewer than five attorneys.

"That's the market I'm trying to capture," she said. "You have to have a business sense [to become a virtual paralegal]. You need the practical experience."

Matthews expects word-of-mouth will bring the most clients, but she also mentioned that paid Web sites exist where virtual assistants can bid for projects.


Because there is not yet a formal certification process for virtual paralegals or general assistants, it's impossible to say how many are doing business, said Sue Kramer, marketing director for the International Virtual Assistants Association.

"So many don't belong to our organization, or they're doing the work of a virtual assistant , but they don't even know there's a name for what they do," said Kramer, whose group has more than 600 members in 16 countries.

If starting from scratch with clients, virtual paralegals have numerous options for doing business. They can charge an introductory low hourly rate to attract new clients; they can offer a certain amount of work for a monthly retainer; they can charge a per-project rate after both sides agree on estimated length of the project; and they can even work out a barter system with the lawyers for trading services.

Virtual paralegals generally charge $15 to $20 an hour for basic data input, and more complex matters start in the neighborhood of $30 an hour.

To make a business work, the "most critical" technology requirements are a telephone and high-speed Internet service to access Web-based software that allows one to manage and track projects, said Laurie Mapp, who owns a virtual paralegal business in Alberta, Canada.

"Most communication is by phone, e-mail or chat," she said. "A webcam may make video conferences possible, too."

Mapp started her business last year and though she has not connected with any Connecticut lawyers, her desire is to create an international clientele through online networking efforts. She plans to enhance her local client base through a marketing campaign this fall.

For an hourly rate, Mapp drafts court documents such as pleadings and motions, conducts research, proofreads briefs, reviews transcripts and handles large document redactions, among other things.

She said one of the main advantages of a virtual paralegal compared with a traditional paralegal is the lower cost: virtual paralegals are not paid salary and benefits.

"A virtual legal assistant is available whenever the workload is heavy enough to justify it, but in slow times there is no need to worry about layoffs or high salaries," said Mapp, who has a degree in paralegal studies and worked more than a decade in law firms focused mainly on litigation.

But it's not easy to win lawyers over to the idea of a virtual assistant for a variety of reasons.

"It is challenging convincing lawyers that they can trust staff or virtual contractors to get the work done, to do a great job and yet not be under their eagle eyes," Mapp said. "Law firms often aren't comfortable with technology, so that is another challenge ... getting them familiar with the tools that make virtual partnerships work."


Janice Favreau, who is the president of the Central Connecticut Paralegal Association, said her concerns about a company using a virtual paralegal are also tied to technology, but from a security standpoint.

Favreau said she wasn't familiar with virtual paralegals, but after doing some research one of her primary points was the challenge of maintaining client confidentiality by securing information that is being e-mailed or sent over the Internet.

Then there's a matter of possible conflicts of interest, something that paralegals must disclose to attorneys when working for a law firm, or possible instances of the unauthorized practice of law.

Favreau, a registered paralegal with the LEGO toy company in Enfield, believes that because virtual paralegals have no formal registration or certification process, they will not threaten the standing of traditional paralegals. In fact, they're eligible to be part of traditional paralegal associations, as long as they meet the criteria.

"From a level of standardization and comfort, I don't think they'll take over the profession," Favreau said. "They will augment and fill niches of the market. I can see both sides of the coin. Virtual paralegals can be very beneficial to a law practice for a case that requires a lot of resources."

Kramer, of the IVAA, said that anecdotal evidence indicates that the number of virtual assistants in the legal field is growing, though not as quickly as real estate virtual assistants. And there have been discussions about certification and creating an industry standard among the numerous virtual assistants associations.

But she agrees that virtual paralegals will not be replacing in-house paralegals on a large scale any time soon.

"I think it will be many years before we see that," Kramer said. "Traditional companies like law firms are more comfortable seeing someone in a chair."


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