A giant leap into the future practice of law has been the onset of the hybrid workforce. Preparing one’s firm for a hybrid work setting, opens the door further for remote work and leveraging virtual assistants. Between the economic advantages, the ability to overcome the labor shortage, and provide greater work-life balance, the future of law includes maximizing the remote workforce.
In 2011-2012, my husband took a position in Dubai, UAE, moving us from Houston, TX. I, with my law firm of one and half years and a newborn of six months, found a way to manage and grow my firm from halfway around the world with the technology and tools that existed at the time. Leveraging technology, a great mentor, and paradigm shifting were at the heart of my success. I returned to the United States and rented a brick-and-mortar office and began to have in-person staff, but I never forgot my nimble remote mindset.
Fast forward to March 2020, because I had already run my firm remotely in the past, I was able to move my firm’s operations remotely within 10 days when the pandemic became evident. With better technology, more savvy and sophisticated clients, and technological advances with the federal agencies my law practice revolved around, I was able to maximize the hybrid workforce. Taking that experience one step further, I began to explore remote workers and virtual assistants.
A virtual assistant (VA) is an individual who provides professional administrative, technical, or creative assistance to clients remotely from a home office. Often in my experience, they are employees of a staffing company that recruits, screens, and trains them in addition to facilitating the onboarding and payroll process. They could also be directly hired, as well.
I find that when people first think about virtual assistants or remote workers, they think about answering phones and scheduling. But in fact, they can perform almost any duty and function that doesn’t need to be done in-person. The big takeaway, if you set up your firm for hybrid work, you can onboard remote staff for almost any position.
Here is a quick review of the benefits and disadvantages of virtual assistants/remote staff:
- Substantial costs savings
- Less space used in office/reduced overhead
- Save time by delegating duties
- Depending on location of of the virtual assistants and time-zone arrangement, could benefit from time arbitration (i.e. could have work done around the clock)
- Often staffing company assists with recruitment, training, onboarding and payroll
- Potentially less responsibility with employment laws, tax obligations, and other related concerns
- Adjustments necessary to adapt role or way of working, may need to reassign in-person duties
- Possible knowledge gaps due to geography and cultural background
- Language mastery for writing and communication with clients
- Technology required or available
- Power outages or political turmoil in home office
- Time zones, if the virtual assistant is far away from your time zone and working around your schedule
Before I could tout the benefits of virtual assistants to my law practice management consultees and others, I had to be my own guinea pig. For much of 2021-2022, I experimented with different staffing agencies, direct hires, and remote staff. The world had changed substantially in the past decade when I had leveraged remote staff from the likes of Upwork, formerly Odesk.
In the end, I landed on using one virtual assistant staffing company, Stafi, for almost a year and have added five virtual assistants now. Thse five positions span almost all areas of my firm, including one executive assistant, one receptionist, one marketing assistant, and two legal assistants. This further proves that almost any position could be done remotely, if the firm is set up appropriately.
The way this particular agency works, which is similar to others I explored, the candidate has been interviewed, screened with references and aptitude tests, and provided some training before they are ready to interview with potential firms. The benefits of working with a company like Stafi are that they do background checks, provide substantial support, including psychological resources, and check in with both their employees and the firm to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Having hired so many staff over my law firm’s 14 years, I really enjoyed that the agency would provide one or two candidates for interviewing, and I often would hire the first or second candidate and have them start within a day or two of the interview. In today’s labor shortage, it was exciting and refreshing, in fact almost too fast, considering we had become accustomed to sifting tirelessly through so many duds for so long. But if I had a need, I could have it filled very quickly and that was very encouraging to know.
Some colleagues prefer to conduct their own direct hires to have more control over their staff arrangement and increased profitability, while others enjoy candidates being shortlisted for hiring and all the support that is provided with an agency. This is a key question that must be explored for your own law firm’s needs and goals. Fees range from agency to agency and depending on the VA’s skills and experience.
The decision to create a hybrid or virtual practice and employ remote staff takes considerable thought. It is imperative that your firm create policies and procedures to ensure remote staff will be able to efficiently work and cohesively with the other hybrid or in-person staff.
For our firm, the policies for remote, hybrid and in-person staff are almost identical. A firm’s cybersecurity, technology, communication, training, and organizational policies must be delineated and clear for all staff. Regardless of location, the direct supervisor and trainer of new staff must be clearly identified. Job descriptions, goals and metrics must be coherent. Project management and asynchronous communication tools are essential with a growing multi-model firm to maximize communication and minimize unnecessary meetings. In my firm we use Google Chat, which is very helpful with all types of employees and allows employees to talk to one another one on one or in themed groups. We have a project management system whereby team members can offer work to be reviewed and supervisors and attorneys can communicate with staff asynchronously. Basically, you need to have tight systems and training to pull this off. But, you should have them anyway, so this process helps take your firm to the next level.
What if you are looking for a specific skills set? You have to communicate those skills to the agency and/or on the posting. I was having an extremely hard time finding a Spanish-speaking immigration court legal assistant. The agency found me someone with a base of experience and with about three months of intense training on my part, I am extremely impressed with my assistant, and now my firm couldn’t live without her. This is similar with the other VAs and the various skills sets that they brought to the table. In fact, a few of my VAs are attorneys in other countries, and they are extremely interested in law and continued growth with the firm.
With advances in AI, we have most recently been able to maximize tools in various ways to minimize time needed for tasks and minimize language disadvantages. For example, when ChatGPT was announced, my marketing assistant began to use it for copywriting purposes, and it helped improve her English posts. Additionally, my executive assistant used it for emails and small articles or posts. I later realized that all my legal assistants should use it as well. Additionally, my team uses Otter.ai as a tool to record training, transcribe notes, and communicate asynchronously. We are continuing to find ways for the AI tools to maximize our staff’s resources.
On the topic of remote staff, I am asked, how do you know they are working efficiently and being productive? Generally, I believe if you have the right people, you don't have to worry about that; and if you allow a staff member you have known for a while to work from home then you know what they should be able to produce regardless of location. Now, this may not always be the case. Here is where productivity tools come into play. Between hiring the right staff in the first place, regular communication, realistic goal setting and ongoing training, these concerns should be minimized. Goals vary based on the position but examples include the amount of cases prepared per week, the amount of consults scheduled and calls taken per day, or the amount of posts on social media. Keep in mind that if a candidate can't handle the independence of a remote or virtual position, then they aren't the right candidate for the job.
Letting go of staff remotely can be a lot more awkward and cumbersome than doing so in person. When you must terminate a contractor with an agency, the process is relatively simple once you have communicated the need for termination and given the company the proper notice. On the other hand, if it is working and is beneficial for your firm, then you’re getting the best of both worlds!
I hope my mini-business case study of leveraging virtual assistants has been eye-opening in some capacity. According to the innovation chart, my best estimate is that the innovators and the early adopters are in this space with the early majority closely watching. The only way you will find out if this option works for your firm is to try it out and improve it. I am sure glad I took the leap of faith.