A virtual legal assistant is an outsourced professional who helps lawyers and others involved in law practice manage their businesses from afar. Common virtual legal assistant work includes word processing, dictation transcriptions, and court filing management. Assistants typically work remotely on a contract basis. They are not usually considered full-fledged employees and can be a great way for law firms and small legal practices to save money while staying on top of documents and administrative tasks.
Legal practice in nearly every jurisdiction requires a lot of paperwork. The glory of much of an attorney’s work happens in the courtroom, but getting there is rarely easy. Clients must be obtained, screened, and interviewed; complaints must be drafted, filed, and served. Depositions must be scheduled and taken, and witnesses must be contacted and prepared. Lawyers traditionally hire administrative assistants and paralegals to help shoulder the burden of these tasks.
In the face of rising costs and often more sporadic work requirements, firms are increasingly looking to virtual legal assistant solutions as an alternative to hiring full-time office staff. A virtual assistant, or VA, is so called because he or she is only virtually present — often over the Internet, on the phone, or via fax. Many assistants work from a home office or from outsourced office setups around the world. They are often hired on a contract, per-project basis, and work as independent contractors.
This is not to say that firms never develop on-going relationships with a virtual legal assistant over time. Many assistants work for only a handful of clients. The benefit to the company is that assistants must only be paid for work completed. They are not generally salaried and do not usually qualify for health or other benefits.
Some legal experience is usually required to become a virtual legal assistant. An entrepreneur with a paralegal background may develop a home business acting as a virtual legal assistant to local firms, for instance. Former office-based legal assistants often also go to work for larger VA staffing organizations.
The specific kinds of work a virtual legal assistant can handle usually varies by jurisdiction. The practice of law is highly regulated in most places, and only certain people are permitted to draft and file documents or handle certain sensitive information. While virtual office assistant services can alleviate a lot of costs for firms, they can also open the firm up to significant liability if not properly structured.
Firms interested in retaining outsourced help would be wise to first research their jurisdiction’s laws regarding the distribution of legal work and document processing. Depending on the nature of an assistant’s tasks, the firm may need to prove that each assistant was supervised by a licensed attorney. Administrative staff, virtual or otherwise, is not usually permitted to offer creative assistance or anything more than basic technical assistance on documents. Client privacy rights and any applicable attorney-client privilege issues must also be examined before forwarding files out of the office.