Your Invisible Assistant
Virtual legal assistants (VLAs) are poised to redefine the traditional legal secretarial position
By Alison Arnot, June 2009
Both virtual and bricks-and-mortar lawyers frequently find they prefer to hire a virtual legal assistant (VLA) who works completely online. Kate Kerans, for instance, provides legal research and other administrative support to lawyers in and around the Calgary area from the comfort of her own home.
Kerans came upon VLA services almost by chance. While on maternity leave from her law firm with her first son, she was looking for a way to earn some extra cash to pay for a new computer purchase. She discovered virtual assistance when researching online and never went back to her job. Although she was happy at her firm, the flexibility and diversity of offering legal services to several sole practitioners and small firms via the internet was too attractive for her.
Laurie Mapp also established her virtual legal assistant business while on maternity leave, with her third child. “While I had a good government job, there was no way I could afford daycare for three children,” she says. Mapp’s clients, however, are not in Edmonton, where she lives, or even in Alberta, but in the United States.
Not every VLA, of course, is a mother of young children. After more than 30 years working as a legal assistant, most recently for Toronto firms, Marion McDonald now provides digital transcription services and other administrative support to those same firms and others from her home in Muskoka.
A VLA’s tasks could include preparing a rough draft of affidavits or agreements, proofreading and formatting documents, conducting and summarizing legal research, liaising with clients, and transcribing audio and digital files. And the advantages of lawyers hiring VLAs are proving tangible.
For one thing, there are none of the overhead costs associated with having a staff person on hand. Kerans’ hourly rate may be higher than a regular legal assistant’s, but it doesn’t include paying for office equipment, benefits, sick days, vacation days, bonuses, and so on. Plus, she bills for only the time she works. “I find my clients are usually quite surprised by how much I do in an hour,” she says.
For larger firms, the VLA can take on overflow work or fill in when legal assistants are on vacation or leave. For solos and small firms, meanwhile, a VLA can free up valuable time. With digital transcription, 15 minutes of dictation equals one hour of McDonald’s typing. “It’s more advantageous for them to send the work to me and carry on practising law rather than doing the administrative work,” she says.
McDonald works after hours and on weekends and has no minimum number of hours. Lawyers simply pay as they go. “I’m not taking the place of their staff; I’m a complement to their staff,” she says.
One concern lawyers may have about hiring VLAs is maintaining the security of documents and client information. Kerans offers clients a secure log-in on her website and sends only encrypted files by email. She doesn’t transport client information on USB sticks, and her laptop has at least three levels of security. She also performs conflict of interest checks before taking on new clients and offers non-disclosure agreements.
For her part, Mapp does not send documents via email. She uses a secure connection to her clients’ computers to upload documents. McDonald provides lawyers with the option to send her their files using a secure, web-based portal on her website, which encrypts the files.
“Approximately half of my clients use this method,” she says, “and half simply rely on the regular email security.” This includes four anti-spyware programs and one anti-virus program running at all times. McDonald adds that lawyers should ensure their VLAs sign confidentiality agreements and have professional liability insurance.
The virtual legal assistant profession is becoming more and more popular. “The last couple of months, I’ve seen a flood of new VAs,” Kerans says. “As long as the technology keeps improving, the services you provide will expand.”