RBull

The Rise of the Virtual Paralegal

Just a few years ago, the idea of becoming a virtual paralegal was just that: an idea. Independent paralegals offered their services to lawyers, and a few daring souls advertised themselves as virtual paralegals, yet there was a distinct under-utilization of these talented individuals. In 1995, only 9% of the workforce telecommunicated. According to a recent Gallup poll, that number has since skyrocketed to 37% (as shown in the graph below), and is not expected to decline any time soon.

Image Source: Gallup

Becoming a virtual paralegal is no longer a fanciful idea. We are witnessing the rise of the virtual paralegal.

What Is a Virtual Paralegal?

A virtual paralegal is someone who works as a paralegal but outside of the traditional law firm or corporate environment. They correspond with their clients, who are usually lawyers, via email, Skype, phone, and through programs designed for use by law firms.

Much like a traditional paralegal, a virtual paralegal’s income is based on their experience. Since paralegals must be supervised by attorneys in order to avoid ethical and legal issues, most people become a virtual paralegal only after they’ve gained more traditional paralegal experience. Virtual paralegals, although supervised from a legal standpoint, spend a lot of time working on their own.  Virtual paralegals must understand how to draft certain documents in the jurisdiction in which they will provide their services. 

How Does One Become a Virtual Paralegal?

To become a virtual paralegal, you must first become a paralegal. Formal paralegal training is a plus, but is not required. In fact, some law offices will train their employees to work as paralegals. For example, you may start as a receptionist or legal secretary and work your way up to a paralegal position, conducting legal research and drafting documents.  If on-site training is not available, you can enroll in a paralegal training program, either online or in a classroom.

Some firms require paralegals to have completed an ABA (American Bar Association) accredited program. ABA accreditation, while voluntary, signifies that the school meets certain academic standards. Again, accreditation is not always a requirement. It’s important to note, however, that the ABA does not accredit fully online degrees.  You can find a list of ABA approved paralegal education programs via their online directory.

Image Source: American Bar Association

There are four primary types of education. First, there are certificate programs. Certificate programs vary in length but are typically completed in less than a year. Next are two-year programs, which award associate degrees in Paralegal Studies (or Legal Studies). Students can also choose to pursue four-year paralegal programs to earn their bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Finally, there are post-college certificates. These programs do not have the traditional educational courses found in two and four-year programs. The work focuses solely on legal classes and paralegal skills. There are also a handful of graduate-level programs in paralegal studies.

Successful virtual paralegals often have between 5 and 15 years of traditional law firm experience before going virtual. Working as a virtual paralegal allows you to set your own rates, hours, and provides the opportunity to interact with a variety of attorneys. It also means you’ll need the right equipment, software, and supplies to run a successful remote business.

Do Attorneys Really Benefit from Using Virtual Paralegals?

Until recently, attorneys did not work with virtual paralegals due to potential security breaches that could violate attorney-client confidentiality privileges. Luckily this concern has been largely addressed through trusted programs like Lexicata and Clio. 

Virtual paralegals are an excellent asset to attorneys for two reasons, time and money:

  1. Time - Attorneys who work at small firms or are self-employed do not need a full-time paralegal. Instead of having a paralegal commute to the office on a varying weekly schedule, lawyers connect with their virtual paralegal at the click of a button. It’s convenient for both parties and saves money, which brings me to my next point.  
  2. Money - Contracting is cost-effective.  Hiring a full-time traditional paralegal can cost around $43,000 annually due to salary, benefits, and office equipment, depending on where you live. Contracted virtual paralegals work with attorneys on an as-needed basis. Therefore, they rarely work full-time or receive benefits from their employer.  

In addition to saving time and money, virtual paralegals are 50% less likely to quit. This creates lower turnover rates, and provides greater opportunities to the virtual paralegal for referral work.

Remote Work Will Continue to Expand

Remote work is not going to disappear, and has even grown over 100% since 2005. Starting a business is one of the hallmarks of the American dream.  Virtual paralegals can have more job satisfaction and provide job security in an ever-changing environment. Isn’t it time you considered your options? 

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Robin Bull holds a BS in Paralegal Studies, and is the former Program Director of Paralegal Studies for Vatterott College in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Robin is the blogger for How to Become a Paralegal, and is the office administrator of SoonerState Legal Center in Oklahoma City.

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