By Janee Prince • April 08, 2017•Careers
With the rise in use of technology in the practice of law, it follows that legal support services, like paralegal and legal assistant services will experience increased technology use as well. But have you ever thought that an entire section of your law practice could be run virtually? Probably not, which is why Ms. J.D. is excited to have had the opportunity to talk with Robin Bull to answer some question about what it means to be a virtual paralegal. Robin Bull is the former Program Director of Paralegal Studies for Vatterott College in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and is the Office Administrator of SoonerState Legal Center in Oklahoma City. Ms. Bull blogs for How to Become a Paralegal and has also blogged about virtual paralegals for Ms. J.D., which you can find here:
Ms. Bull was kind enough to sit down with Ms. J.D. and answer some questions about virtual paralegals and how this flexibility could change the practice of law, not just in the way legal services are delivered externally, but internally as well in the way that we communicate with our support staff. Here's what Ms. Bull had to say:
1. You mentioned [in your Ms. J.D. post] that attorneys supervise virtual paralegals, how are they supervised?
Robin Bull: Generally, via email and phone. I’ve had some clients utilize Skype and Slack. Those are fairly good tools. Most attorneys that I’ve worked with are very good at being available by phone or email. Many even insist on weekly update sessions.
2. Most virtual paralegals only "go virtual" after having had traditional paralegal experience, would you recommend this approach over others? Why or Why not?
Robin Bull: I think it is definitely a good idea to have a solid amount of traditional paralegal experience under your belt. Although virtual paralegals are still technically supervised by an attorney, we work on our own. You don’t necessarily have someone that you can go and talk with about something that’s unclear. You may have to wait on a call back. When you start off in a traditional environment, you learn a lot about formatting, what should go into certain documents, and where to find vital information.
3. What are some of the drawbacks of being a virtual paralegal? I can imagine that lines of, 'when is it appropriate to call your paralegal,' are often crossed --especially when your paralegal working remotely and is easily accessible.
Robin Bull: There are several drawbacks. You do not have constant access to the knowledge of other paralegals or attorneys. You may find yourself working at odd hours. And, yes, you may have to quickly learn how to create and enforce boundaries with your clients. You also have to learn how to politely tell people who need legal help that you are not an attorney and that, no, you cannot give them legal advice even “just this once.” Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind people that you don’t really get paid time off of any sort. If you’re sick or if you’re taking a day off, you’re not getting paid. You have to handle your own taxes, collections, accounting, and advertising (just to name a few things). Sometimes you have to do those things outside of your “office hours.” It can make for some long days (or nights).
4. The legal profession is often accused of being slow when it comes to progressive ideas and technology. How, if at all, has this affected your work as a virtual paralegal?
Robin Bull: Thankfully, I had a considerable network of younger attorneys (they tend to be a little more open minded to using a virtual paralegal especially when they learn that there are secure options available for file transfer). I think that probably helped move my business along. The rise of virtual attorneys (attorneys who office from home) has also helped. Of course, I’ve had some more seasoned attorneys who aren’t incredibly fond of technology reach out to me as well. It started with some basic typing and just moved forward. I’ve taught a few how to use RingCentral and online meeting software. As a virtual paralegal, you have to just sort of accept lawyers for where they fall on the technological spectrum. If their office has an online presence, they’re likely open to the idea. Some take more convincing than others.
5. Here at Ms. J.D., equality in the legal profession is a high priority, so I would be remiss if I did not discuss how equality affects all aspects of the legal profession. Paralegal and legal secretary positions are traditionally seen as "jobs for women," do you think the idea of a virtual paralegal will shift that status quo? If so, how?
Robin Bull: I do. Some of the people that I talk with the most (that are virtual paralegals) are male. I think that the rise of the virtual paralegal will be seen more as the rise of professional research with paralegal capabilities. In fact, when I taught Paralegal Studies a few years back, I’d say close to a third of my students were male. I’ve also seen a rise in attorneys who identify as female becoming virtual and officing from home. It’s nice to see the legal field beginning to change in this way.
6. Are there any other concerns apart from security breaches that you want to discuss that could ease an attorneys' reservations about hiring a virtual paralegal?
Robin Bull: Know who you are hiring even if you rely on a website that specializes in freelancers or virtual workers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard horrible stories from people who thought they knew what they were getting only to end up with someone who couldn’t understand English or they truly did not understand the tasks that they were asked to complete. I would say to talk with your choices over the phone or Skype. Maybe talk briefly (conversationally) about some national legal story. Always get a writing sample of some sort. Essentially, just don’t rush into the process.. Really get to know the potential virtual paralegal. You’re going to trust them with essential tasks for your firm.
7. Have you heard of instances with virtual paralegals overstepping their ethical boundaries?
Robin Bull: Personally? No. Then again, I kind of keep to myself and don’t get out much. I did have a former student who ventured off into UPL (unauthorized practice of law). I did my best to persuade her not to do that. Not sure what ever happened to her.
8. Who are virtual paralegals? What kinds of people seek these opportunities, and what may make them shy away from the traditional route?
Robin Bull: Virtual paralegals are the experienced paralegals who needed more control over their daily schedule for various reasons. We are caretakers of elderly parents. We are parents. We are volunteers in your communities and in your schools. We are people who simply needed to better manage our time for a variety of reasons. If I worked in a traditional office, I wouldn’t be available for my youngest son. He’s seven and falls on the Autism spectrum. He’s what most people would refer to as non-verbal. I certainly couldn’t see us leaving him in the hands of anyone. So, I work in the mornings before he gets up and while he is in school. Our middle son is involved in Brazilian Jiujitsu competitions. That means a lot of gym time for him. Unfortunately, women are often encouraged to “have it all.” The problem with this line of thinking lies in the construct of how we view time. Self-employment is one of the best ways to be available for family while continuing a career in the legal field.
9. There is a lot of legal work that can be done by computers now. What kinds of benefits would hiring a virtual paralegal over a "bot" bring?
Robin Bull: Plugins are great, but they need a human to operate them. Even if a bot existed, the human element would be missing…and we can’t forget that the human element is essential. Think about this: Word has a hard time differentiating between “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”
10. Is there anything else that you'd like people to know about virtual paralegals?
Robin Bull: We’re here to stay. It’s the same concept as being an independent or freelance paralegal…except technology has enabled us to reach across the nation (and sometimes around the world – I’ve worked with firms in Canada, India, and Ireland). We’re just another option that attorneys have to get the job done.
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