Let’s say that you started your law firm a year ago, and your business is finally humming along. Meaning that while you’re not taking home a six-figure income, you’re no longer terrified of not making rent. But lately, you’ve noticed that you’re working more late nights and weekends than you’d like, just to keep pace with the steady influx of cases, law firm administration, and ongoing marketing efforts needed to feed the beast. Or, perhaps you’ve let your marketing efforts (like networking events, lunches, and blogging) slide because you can’t fit them into your schedule — but you fear that you’ll pay the price later when business slows. Or maybe you wind up working after hours simply because you’re too distracted by client calls and emails during the workday.
Back in the day when I started out, most solos who found themselves in this situation would either (1) suck it up and work more or (2) hire a newbie lawyer, paralegal, or receptionist, even though they might not have the revenues to cover a full-time employee. And in an extreme situation, some overworked solos simply stop returning client phone calls or timely filing motions due to lack of time and got hit with bar grievances. Today, however, solos experiencing growing pains have far more options to manage workflow and help transition to the next level. I’ll explore some of those options, along with the respective pros and cons, in this post…
Assess Your Needs
Before bringing on help on a part-time or project basis, it’s important to take stock of your firm’s needs. For example, if you’re overwhelmed with substantive work, but it’s too specialized to affordably outsource or if the clients hired you for your expertise and expect you to handle the entire matter, hiring a freelance attorney to help out may not make sense. Instead, you’d be better off hiring an assistant who can take administrative matters off your plate, or a law student who could help out with research for blog posts, tweets, or a law firm newsletter so that your marketing doesn’t falter when work increases. By contrast, if you have a volume practice where you’re frequently in court for scheduling matters or a trial practice that occasionally involves complicated motions or appeals that you’re not comfortable handling, a per diem appearance attorney or experienced freelance lawyer might be the best fit.
Examine Your Budget
In addition to assessing your needs, also consider your budget. It doesn’t make sense from a financial perspective to hire a $200/hour high-level freelance attorney to cite check a brief for a matter that you’re handling on a contingency basis when a paralegal or even a law student could perform the work for a fraction of the cost. Also, be sure that you have the funds to cover payment for a freelancer if your client delays payment. Because freelancers, particularly freelance lawyers, are already working for less than the going hourly billable rate, many will decline to enter into an arrangement that makes their payment contingent on yours.
Once you’ve settled on the profile of who you want to hire, you need to identify eligible candidates. And today, there are more options than ever.
For virtual receptionists, you’re probably best off using some type of service already equipped to answer and forward calls rather than hiring an individual, part-time receptionist. Total Attorneys, Ruby Receptionists, and DaVinci are just examples of services used by solos and smalls, but there are dozens of others that you can find online, including those that offer bilingual answering options.
If you’re interested in a virtual assistant — sort of all-purpose administrative support who might handle anything from formatting and generating documents, back-end web support, appointment scheduling, or simple research tasks, you might try a service like Zirtual (or others listed here), which is geared towards small business rather than lawyers specifically. Alternatively, you may need more legally focused administrative service such as Legal Typist, which offers transcription services and document prep and assistance with setting workflow and technology choices, or a virtual paralegal service that can handle simple legal tasks. Generally, you can find virtual assistants with legal experience and virtual paralegals through online searches, traditional placement and staffing agencies (for example, Robert Half), recommendations of colleagues, or your bar association’s law practice management office.
Finally, there are nearly unlimited options for finding freelance and contract attorneys. In addition to traditional placement agencies mentioned above, there’s been an explosion of online services like Montage Legal, Custom Counsel, or or Intermix Legal, that will match contract lawyers to your needs and price point, or Legal Ease, which relies in part on off-shored attorneys. You can also outsource directly to an independent legal research and writing freelancer like Lisa Solomon or others listed at Freelance Law, a directory of legal freelancers. One of the advantages of working with a “matching” service or an experienced freelance lawyer is that they will already have standard contracts so you won’t have to prepare an agreement yourself. Still, if your budget is limited, you could go further down the ranks, and bid a legal research project on Elance.com, post a position on Craigslist (narrow your search or you’ll be inundated with responses), or on a law school placement board.
Making the Choice
Not surprisingly, positive references and testimonials matter in choosing a virtual service or legal contract lawyer — not just to find the best possible candidate but also to avoid a fly-by-night operator who’s unqualified or fails to complete the work. Writing samples and other work product are also important at least for freelance lawyers; if a candidate can’t provide that kind of information, chances are they lack the experience to do the job. Websites can also be telling since if a company or attorney can’t catch grammar or spelling errors on their own site, chances are they won’t catch those mistakes when working on your projects either. Of course, while it’s nice to find a top-quality provider on the first try, one benefit of outsourcing is that if the hire doesn’t work out, you never have to use them again.
Managing The Relationship
If you’re working with staff or attorneys remotely, have a system in place to facilitate collaboration. Most of the law practice management platforms like Clio, Rocket Matter, and My Case allow lawyers to grant access to files to freelancers and virtual assistants on a limited, “need to know” basis — but you could even share information through online document share platforms Box.net or Dropbox. The ability to share common files cuts down the time required to get a virtual team member up and running.
To further ensure a successful and productive relationship, express your expectations to your virtual service or freelancer up front. If you’d like the phone answered a certain way, provide a specific script; if you expect freelance attorneys to check in with a progress report every other day, let them know at the outset. In addition, as a hiring attorney, you have an ethical obligation to oversee and review all work by non-firm lawyers to ensure that it’s been competently performed and to ensure that outside staff complies with confidentiality rules and if applicable, conflict rules.
Periodically Review the Results
One of the benefits of a flexible workforce is that you’re not locked into any situation long term. So, periodically review the arrangement to ensure that it’s still working. In some instances, service providers I was satisfied with initially later deteriorated to a point that I could no longer retain them. In other cases, a provider’s cost increased to the point where it exceeded my price range. Finally, when you review your annual costs, you may discover that you’re paying nearly as much for per diem work as you would for a full-time hire, in which case it might make more sense to hire an employee who would be available 40 hours a week rather than just half-time on an hourly basis.
A flexible work force is the new 21st century buzzword — but it’s also a trend that benefits many lawyers just starting out by allowing them to grow without the risk or cost of permanent hires. Still, virtual staff and freelance attorneys don’t make sense for every lawyer or every practice, so don’t jump on the bandwagon because it seems as if everyone else is doing so.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.