Vicki Voisin, ACP
Has working as a virtual paralegal ever crossed your mind? When I surveyed subscribers of my weekly ezine, Paralegal Strategies, 88% answered, “Yes!” Chances are good that you, too, have given some thought to working virtually.
Technological advances have made it possible for legal professionals, including attorneys and paralegals, to become mobile and work virtually. The virtual legal world is really coming into its own.
At the same time, clients are demanding cost effective legal services. The effective utilization of highly experienced and properly trained virtual paralegals is clearly the best avenue for the legal community to practice law both efficiently and economically without incurring the employee overhead that is customarily passed on to clients.
For many reasons, including the depressing economic climate of the past year or so where many paralegals have found themselves unemployed, the idea of launching a booming business sounds very good.
There are many successful virtual paralegals throughout the United States and Canada. You could be one, too. However, if you take that leap to self-employment, you should leap with your eyes wide open. Here are 11 things you should know:
1. What is a virtual paralegal? A virtual paralegal working in the state of California should meet both the definition adopted by the American Bar Association and the State Bar of California and, in addition, possess the skills and expertise to perform this work as an independent contractor in a virtual setting, usually from a fully equipped remote office.
The reason for meeting both definitions is that the virtual paralegal will very likely work for attorneys located in more than one state. It is most important to note that even though the paralegal is working virtually, working under the supervision of a licensed attorney is still required.
2. This is not a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. If you think you can just set up your computer in your spare bedroom and expect the money to start rolling in, think again. Launching a successful virtual paralegal business is like establishing any other business: it requires a lot of hard work, determination, and commitment.
3. This is not something you undertake right out of paralegal school. It is imperative that you have practical experience (a minimum of five years is recommended) working in the legal setting, either in a law firm or a corporate legal department, prior to launching your own business. Not only is the practical legal experience important, but you will need to establish contacts among your peers for future business prospects.
4. You will work more, not less. Assuming your goal is to make a profit, you should be prepared to put in some long hours. Not only will you have to handle the work for your clients, you will also be in charge of your business, with all the responsibilities and headaches that come with business ownership. This includes marketing, billing, ordering supplies, purchasing equipment, etc. One thing to remember is that when you’re making the investment in yourself, working those long hours may be very satisfying.
5. You can’t spend all your time in your pajamas and bunny slippers. It’s true that your dress code will change and you will eliminate your daily commute, but it will remain important for you to maintain your professional contacts and continue your networking. To do this, you will need to project a professional image.
6. Working alone can be lonely. You will no longer have the interaction with your fellow workers and you may miss that. Be sure you can spend time alone and keep yourself motivated when you are accountable to no one but yourself. You’ve got to focus…no wandering off to watch Oprah, read a book or clean a closet.
7. Your benefits will go away. You can forget your four weeks of vacation, 401k, health and life insurance plans, and any other benefits your current employer provides. It will be your responsibility to pay your taxes and to provide your own insurance.
8. You’ll need a ‘nest egg’ to get started. You should have a cash reserve for startup costs. Remember that you will provide your own equipment, software and office space. Your telephone system and Internet services will be your responsibility. You’ll have to pay for designing and maintaining a website and a blog. AND you’ll need to consult with both an attorney and an accountant. The startup costs will have to be funded long before you have cash coming in.
9. You’ll still answer to someone. If your goal is to be your own boss and to answer only to yourself, don’t forget that you will have clients that will require your attention and require good customer service. You’re still going to work for attorneys and have to meet their deadlines and demands.
10. Ethics are just as important as when you worked in-house. The issues of confidentiality and attorney-client privilege remain, as does the obligation to work under the supervision of a licensed attorney. The attorney must review your final work product. Because you will be working primarily over the Internet, you will have to pay close attention to security issues.
11. Marketing will be your responsibility. Ideally, you may be able to work virtually for your current employer or for a former employer. Those contacts will be important. If you don’t have that ‘lifeline’ to rely upon, you will have to work very hard to attract clients. Your website, blog, and social networking efforts will be very important and will take a good deal of time.
While you should feel comfortable that you can handle all of the above, I have a few more recommendations for you to help you launch your business:
- Do your research. Read any special reports you can locate and visit the web sites and blogs of working virtual paralegals. With the assistance of Cathy Ribble, CP, a virtual paralegal working out of Guthrie OK, I compiled Sixty-Six Solid Tips From Your Virtual Paralegal Success Team. Thirteen paralegals contributed to this effort and each has a web site you can visit. This is a f’ree resource and can be accessed here.
- Listen to the experiences of other virtual paralegals. Paralegals are a generous group and always willing to help. You will find The Virtual Paralegal Interview Series to be a valuable resource. Six virtual paralegals were interviewed and all offered tips for launching a business, including the equipment and software you will need, how to market your business, and how to attract clients. More information about these interviews is available at this link.
- Prepare a business plan. You must have a good idea about the kind of work you will do and how you will run your business. This includes establishing your hourly rate. You can find more information atbpplans.com
- Check out www.vanetworking.com This is a wonderful resource for everyone working virtually, in the legal arena or otherwise.
While working virtually will take planning, research, energy and commitment, it is a realistic goal for you so long as you understand the risks involved and the hurdles you will have to overcome. If you’re ready to take the leap to the virtual world, go for it!
©2010 Vicki Voisin, Inc.
Do you want to use this article in your newsletter, ezine or Web site? You can so long as you include this entire blurb with it: Vicki Voisin, “The Paralegal Mentor”, delivers simple strategies for paralegals and other professionals to create success and satisfaction by achieving goals and determining the direction they will take their careers. Vicki spotlights resources, organizational tips, ethics issues, and other areas of continuing education to help paralegals and others reach their full potential. She publishes a weekly ezine titled Paralegal Strategies and co-hosts The Paralegal Voice, a monthly podcast produced by Legal Talk Network. More information is available at www.paralegalmentor.com