The Benefits of Virtual Legal Assistants

By Maddy Martin

“Virtual assistants” is simultaneously one of the most trending and confusable terms of the last ten years. Ask a fellow attorney or friend to define it. Everyone gives a different explanation—ranging from the pre-recorded phone greetings you hear when you call your pharmacy to the remote worker drafting your Facebook posts to the work-from-home paralegal who onboards newly retained clients.

When asked what their virtual legal assistants contribute toward, in one recent online forum thread with 192 (!) comments, attorneys gave a wide range of responses, including:

  • Initial applications and pre-hearing briefs for social security disability cases
  • Calendaring
  • Inbox management
  • Onboarding new clients
  • Liaison with intake specialists
  • Systems creation
  • Data analysis
  • Data entry
  • Naming electronic files and organizing them
  • Sending out retainer agreements and retainer invoice
  • Accounts receivable and payable
  • Setting up new matters in case management software
  • Closing out clients
  • Uploading expenses into bookkeeping software
  • Adding people to mailing lists
  • Research projects

Most virtual assistant providers don’t make this any easier for us to understand. Even though their laundry list of services is meant to convey value, the initial reaction is one of overwhelm than relief. Check out the services menu of some of the most respected solutions for virtual legal assistants, and it will leave your head spinning.

If you’re reading this post, I imagine you’re considering how a virtual legal assistant can help your firm. And so, you’ve likely:

  • Identified your pain points that remain unsolved by staff alone (if you have any staff).
  • Shown willingness to put funds toward a solution (maybe you’ve already carved out some budget).
  • Developed a comfort level with delegating tasks (even if it’s minimal).
  • Determined how urgently you need to secure help.

It’s clear from the lists above that we’re not talking about some pre-recorded voice prompt. So, from here on out, we’ll consider the definition of virtual assistants for law firms to be those human helpers who handle work not required to be completed by an attorney

Broad? Yes. But that allows us to consider the following types of legal virtual assistants, all of whom play critical roles in supporting law firms:

  • Virtual administrative assistant
  • Virtual receptionists and live chat agents
  • Virtual bookkeepers
  • Virtual intake specialists
  • Virtual paralegals
  • Virtual legal secretaries

(Note that I’m excluding virtual law clerks and virtual freelance attorneys who may assist in law firm work, but whose contributions come at a cost and level of responsibility that far exceeds those within the domain of “assistants.” And if we call them “assistants,” then we risk diminishing their value and our willingness to compensate them adequately. But I digress.)

Most commonly, virtual assistants take the roles that Joey Vitale’s company, Global Vetted VAs™, outlines on their website:

After speaking with law firm owners over the last five years about their pain points, the three most important jobs of a legal virtual assistant are:

  • Customer support
  • Inbox and calendar management
  • Data entry and document management

It’s important to consider what these broad terms mean and how law firm virtual assistants handling these tasks will impact your day-to-day work. It’s helpful to break these three down further:

1. Customer Support Duties for a Virtual Assistant

Case management software services can help your law firm's virtual assistants with smooth service. Visit MyCase.com/case_management to learn more.

 

What it means 

Customer support for attorneys often takes the shape of providing case updates, answering and returning calls, replying to emails, monitoring social media, monitoring reviews and requesting them from clients, and triaging communications in general. The assistant is rarely the final source of information but the initial frontline service member.

Other traditional support duties like managing the office and its guests—if the firm operates a brick-and-mortar location—are irrelevant for virtual legal assistants who work remotely. So, be mindful of who will pick up those duties if you’re replacing or supplementing virtual staff for in-house equivalents.

How to set expectations for these tasks

Beyond basic training on firm policies, task protocols, and office software, anyone in a customer support role must also be trained on the firm’s brand, tone, and values. Any assistant, in-house or virtual, should represent the firm well to its clients and other constituents—as all behavior and work performance reflects on the attorney(s) and the firm owner(s).

Customer support precautions with virtual assistants

Monitoring is an essential responsibility of firm owners placing legal virtual assistants in frontline service roles. Many firm owners elect to add call recording to their phone lines and freelance management platforms like Upwork that monitor output and productivity with screen recorders. Among other solutions, this ensures work quality is up to the firms’ standards, and missteps are quickly corrected to minimize the potential for damage. 

How attorneys benefit by offloading these duties

Delegating routine tasks and chores to virtual assistants can free up as much as 25% of your workday. Suppose you opt for multiple law firm virtual assistants on rotation or a virtual receptionist service instead of a single dedicated virtual assistant. In that case, you can even extend coverage into nights and weekends, opening up your firm to new leads who contact you after-hours looking for a prompt reply.

Furthermore, you operate on a more flexible budget when you pay based on the duration of work (contractors, freelancers) rather than on the commitment to complete duties (staff). Expenses are only incurred as the workload necessitates. Some service providers may require committing to a block of hours or “share” of a virtual assistant every month. However, the cost is still far more scaled to output than a traditional employee whose utilization is typically not optimized. 

Consider receptionist services charging per call, like Smith.ai—as long as you know you’ll get about one call per day (or more), your utilization will be 100%. You get what you pay for and then only pay more (“overage”) if additional work is required. The main benefit of a virtual assistant is the lower, the more flexible, and the more contained cost of services. The secondary benefit is the scalability of these services (it’s relatively easy to add more personnel). Depending on the service and whether the virtual assistant is working independently or within a larger organization, another benefit is minimal management time for the firm owner. Larger companies will supply management to help minimize the oversight required by the firm owner, although some firm owners will prefer to be more hands-on.

2. Inbox and Calendar Management Duties for Virtual Assistants

What it means

Inbox management historically has only included email inboxes. With the rise of text messaging, social media, and review sites, it’s wiser to consider all platforms with an inbox or messaging worthy of monitoring by a lawyer virtual assistant. After all, the person who sends your firm a Facebook message deserves a reply just as quickly as someone who emailed you.

Calendar management typically means booking, rescheduling, and reminding clients of appointments. It may also include light outreach to clients who are due in court to ensure they appear on time and are presentable. A law firm virtual assistant equipped with instructions to the courthouse, parking guidelines, and other specialized tips can go from moderately to majorly valuable. (Maybe another category here should be for stress management! I’ll leave that to another article.)

How to set expectations for these tasks

Calendaring requires precise attention to detail, keen listening skills, articulate communication about availability, expectations, and (when necessary) associated costs. It’s not uncommon to have payments due for consultations. A law firm virtual assistant handling those bookings must be authorized to accept credit cards over the phone, using law firm billing software, or sending payment links via email, text, or social message. 

Virtual assistants assigned these duties will deal with sensitive matters. They must juggle the sense of urgency of the client seeking a meeting with the firm’s prerogative to, let’s say, only book consultations on Fridays. When supply and demand don’t align, the assistant must be diplomatic, gracious, patient, and understanding at the moment. They must also be problem solvers who know their boundaries and don’t cave under the pressure of an agitated caller.

Look for virtual assistants who are calm under pressure and stick to the instructions.

And speaking of instructions, you will need them. Don’t expect mind readers (this goes for all areas of virtual assistant work). The right way to set expectations is to lay them out early, clearly, in written form, and in a face-to-face (virtual) meeting. Then enforce them. Don’t be the dog owner pulled by the dog on the leash. It’s not their fault; it’s yours. You’re in charge, and early correction is the best way to prevent foreseeable problems.

Inbox and calendaring precautions with virtual assistants

As with any duty that requires access to direct communication channels with leads and clients (and perhaps other attorneys and court staff), I strongly recommend having any virtual assistant sign an NDA before working with your firm. But don’t let that substitute for active monitoring and management. It’s the duty of the firm owner(s) to ensure all work is handled according to the Professional Rules of Conduct of the jurisdiction.

Suppose the virtual assistant is also handling financial information. In that case, I’d recommend having them sign a financial NDA specific to the handling of personal credit card and bank information (of the firm and its leads and clients). 

For firms new to hiring virtual staff like assistants, receptionists, secretaries, and paralegals, you may also consider limiting duties to booking new appointments rather than moving around calendar events and triaging messages. That’s an easy way to mitigate risk. 

How attorneys benefit by offloading these duties

Does anyone enjoy the back-and-forth rigamarole of booking appointments with one or more people? Nope. Attorneys’ time is precious and best spent on billable work, firm management, and strategic planning. Choosing to put a virtual assistant on inbox management and calendaring tasks means choosing to spend your time where it’s far more valuable to the firm. 

3. Data Entry and Document Management for Virtual Assistants

What it means

This one is pretty self-explanatory like the others: virtual assistants for lawyers can enter data and keep documents filed in the proper location (that is, within software programs instead of filing cabinets). 

Duties may also include transcribing calls, taking notes in meetings, processing audio and video files for uploading to secure servers, and writing manuals and guides for firm operations that they may have observed or practiced. 

The latter is one of the most underutilized virtual legal assistant services areas. Individuals assigned to frontline duties are often the best-qualified people to write down processes in detailed guides, which can add to your firm’s operating manual.

In the best-case scenario, if a virtual assistant leaves, this manual can be used by the departing assistant to train their replacement—or at least for the management in the virtual assistant company to prepare the incoming helper.

How to set expectations for these tasks

Data entry and document management can affect case outcomes and client experiences, so be sure virtual assistants understand the importance of paying attention to details. Make sure you can trace the steps of each user in your software (often called activity logging), which means never sharing a login between users. Each virtual assistant should have a login, so if a mistake is made, you’re not facing detective work blindly, trying to figure out whodunnit.

Data entry and document management precautions with virtual assistants

Take a step-by-step approach, gradually increasing the assistant’s access to your firm’s programs and responsibilities. It’s far better to be slightly slower upfront than to lose many hours later trying to fix a mistake, retrieve lost documents, etc.

How attorneys benefit by offloading these duties

The benefits here are realized just the same as they are for calendaring, inbox management, call answering, and other duties named above: great productivity, improved focus, fewer interruptions, less time on chores, and more time on casework where an attorney’s expertise is required. 

A law firm owner who is spread too thin, trying to handle all their minutiae, will suffer a death by a thousand cuts. No thriving firm owner wears every hat and fills every role. It is critical to  offload responsibilities from your plate to gain the time and energy to focus on the bigger picture. The benefits of offloading aren’t just experienced daily but also accumulated to form a solid foundation your firm can grow on.

Use technology to manage your commitments. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that nimble firms have the best chance of thriving profitably. Accepting a little risk in the form of innovation and new business models is far better than facing risks from inaction and stale business models. 

The beauty of virtual assistants, receptionists, and other remote staff, is these professionals can work harmoniously with just about any systems your firm has in place, including case management software. They’re the perfect bridge between your firm and where you’re headed.


Maddy Martin is the VP of Marketing for Smith.ai, which provides superior 24/7 law firm communication and intake services for phone calls, chats, and texts through skilled live agents and AI technology. She has expertise in digital marketing, small business communications, lead conversion, email marketing, SEO and content marketing, social media, comarketing, and event marketing. Maddy can be reached on LinkedIn.

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