The use of virtual assistants (VAs) in the legal industry has grown in recent years. These remote human professionals (lest you were envisioning an AI-driven device such as Amazon’s Alexa), who may be based overseas or in the U.S., handle a myriad of tasks. They help support and streamline business operations by answering calls, managing unruly email inboxes, performing clerical work, and providing marketing support and other specialized services on an as-needed basis—at a cost that can be considerably lower than hiring a traditional in-office assistant. But do VAs really save businesses money and help achieve greater profitability?
In this roundtable discussion, five professionals with deep experience in the VA space explain what VAs do, the potential risks and benefits they bring, how they’re impacting the way law firms operate, and more.
|Elizabeth Ricci (ER) is managing partner of Rambana & Ricci, PLLC Immigration Attorneys. She is an award-winning advocate and immigration attorney who has been featured in international media for her work with foreign-born veterans.|
|Galy Vega (GV) is the founder of Galy Vega Virtual Administrative and Marketing Assistant Services based in Orange County, California, which provides consultants, law firms and business owners with tailored virtual assistant services.|
|Nance L. Schick (NS) is a New York City business and employment attorney-mediator who has been working with remote employees and clients for more than 10 years. She also teaches continuing education courses on technology in the workplace.|
|Melissa Smith (MS) is the founder & CEO of the Association of Virtual Assistants and The PVA, a virtually-based firm that matches clients with the right virtual assistants. She is also the bestselling author of Hire the Right Virtual Assistant and Become a Successful Virtual Assistant.|
|Adnan Merchant (AM) is a partner at MW Law, a Texas-based law firm. He specializes in assisting private funds and startups in structuring and navigating corporate finance deals.|
NG: Many people don’t understand what a virtual assistant is. What tasks can they perform?
GV: A virtual assistant is an independent contractor who typically works remotely from home, and provides all types of services, from administrative to marketing. Virtual assistants can provide support in calendar management, project management, email management, data entry, contract drafting, PowerPoint presentations, website, and social media management… the list can go on forever.
NS: The skills and experience of virtual assistants vary as much as any other assistant. Some focus on general office tasks, such as telephone reception, typing, editing, filing, PowerPoint presentations, and scheduling. Others provide more marketing support, such as website maintenance, blogging, client screening, and public relations. Still others offer bookkeeping and other specialized services.
MS: If you have a need, a virtual assistant is ready to help you.
NG: Are virtual assistants a fleeting trend or something that is here to stay?
ER: I’ve worked with my virtual assistant for 10 years and have no plans to change. Some of my colleagues have VAs now and they all seem to be pleased. The convenience is worth it!
MS: Virtual assistants are part of the rapidly growing remote work community, which is to say they are here to stay.
GV: I believe the virtual world is growing and it is here to stay. Many organizations are turning to VAs because they tend to be very serious about their work.
NS: Virtual assistants are here to stay. Many business experts predict that 50% of the U.S. workforce will be independent in the next five to 10 years, and VAs will be a large part of this, especially where the definition covers a broad range of assistance.
AM: We’re seeing more and more companies—even beyond law firms—utilize virtual assistants. Sometimes the best talent isn’t in your city. Organizations that can be more flexible are able to utilize talented professionals regardless of the geographical barriers. As technology improves and organizations place a greater emphasis on employees’ quality of living, I believe you will see a significant increase in not only virtual assistants, but all employees having the ability to work virtually.
NG: What are the benefits and potential risks of hiring a virtual assistant?
ER: The benefit of a VA is that I don’t have to pay overhead or a regular salary. I use a VA when the need arises, usually with a labor-intensive case. The risk is that I do not always know if my case will be worked on with urgency. My VA has an online calendar so I can see where my cases are in the queue.
MS: The benefits range from being able to engage a specialist when the work demands it, only paying for the work you need, not paying someone to sit at a desk simply because it needs to be occupied, and typically not providing benefits, software or hardware. One of the biggest benefits my clients boast about is being able to devote their time to what matters most in their practice instead of doing work that needs to get done—just not by them.
NS: The top benefit is independence, for both the employer and the VA. You will share what you want to accomplish, and the VA will tell you how and when it will be done, including the estimated cost—much like a plumber or electrician. You don’t have to train him or her, withhold taxes, or manage the work beyond basic check-ins regarding timelines. However, one risk is potentially misclassifying a VA as an independent contractor when they don’t fit the legal requirements. Even lawyers get these arrangements wrong; probably because they wait too long to get the help they need and hire too quickly.
NG: How are VAs changing the way law firms operate? And are firms seeing big savings—or not?
ER: VAs save time. They can work odd hours, so I can maintain my regular in-office workload with my in-house assistant and also have a VA do the labor-intensive work that does not require facetime. I pay for the convenience and efficiency factor. I don’t believe my use of a VA is cheaper than someone in-house, but because I am able to get work done quickly, my clients are happy, which translates into a good reputation.
GV: Law firms are using VAs in many ways, such as overflow for legal secretaries, administrators, and even accounting departments. This saves firms time, especially when secretaries must handle work for multiple attorneys.
NS: I’m not sure that VAs have truly saved me money. You have to screen them carefully, and I’ve made my share of mistakes in hiring them. Most recently, I bought into one agency’s sales pitches and thought that if I paid more, I would get more. I ended up paying $4,500 for three months of frustration, more work pushed back on me, and only one or two small deliverables. Be skeptical of agencies that demand long-term contracts before they have proven themselves valuable to your team. I’ve found that the VAs with the most flexible agreements often provide the best services and trust clients to stay because they are getting great value from the work.
AM: For boutique firms such as ours, it’s helped streamline our business significantly. We’re able to focus more on our clients and worry less about administrative tasks. VAs can do more than just answer and direct calls—they help keep order to what could easily be chaotic situations. They’re wonderful assets at significantly less cost, which helps firms manage their overhead and sanity.
NG: What’s the best approach to finding a reputable virtual assistant?
ER: Although my long-term VA approached me via email through a legal association of which I am a member, I think it’s mostly word of mouth now. I’m on a private Facebook group for women attorneys (Boss Lady, Esq.) and we’ve exchanged ideas about VAs, among other practice topics.
MS: I founded the Association of Virtual Assistants to give potential clients a place to hire reputable VAs through a transparent process. LinkedIn is also a great resource. Look for groups and forums in the field of expertise you are searching for a VA to fill. It is highly likely VAs are participating in those groups and forums.
GV: LinkedIn is a great resource—many clients have contacted me this way.
NS: I have yet to find a fool-proof way to hire a reputable VA. I’ve had exceptional VAs I hired through agencies as well as independently—it’s no different from hiring any other assistant.
NG: How do you know if a VA is right for your practice?
GV: The firm should determine what tasks are the most time-consuming, and which of these can be done by a remote professional. I advise making a list of day-to-day tasks, and keeping track of how much time is spent on each. Also, are there tasks that are keeping you from completing more important projects?
NS: VAs are great for smaller firms that are already using several cloud integrations, communicate with most clients and parties remotely, and don’t rely heavily on in-person relationships. Yet I think traditional firms can still successfully make the switch.
ER: I gave my current VA an easy test case and he did well, and when I did a few complicated cases he continued to do well. That was 10 years ago!
AM: The right VA will take time to understand the way your business operates and do their best to support your growth. They will be professional, courteous, well organized, driven, and above all, reliable. After a task is assigned to them, you won’t have to think twice about it.
NG: How has the virtual landscape changed over the last five years?
ER: The virtual landscape has become even more high tech. My VA has a secure webpage I access for uploading and downloading items, and I’ve only spoken to him a handful of times; we always email. Although I don’t use this option, some VAs have firm email addresses for direct communication with clients.
MS: In the last five years, there has been a major influx of VAs entering the field without a defined client they serve. It is more important than ever to do your homework when hiring a virtual assistant. Not only do you risk poor work quality and your reputation if the VA isn’t a good fit, but it can also be a costly mistake.