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The Friday FIve

Five Mistakes to Avoid When Working with a Virtual Legal Assistant

Just remember, your success could depend on theirs.

By Niraj Ranjan Rout

A virtual legal assistant (VLA) can take care of administrative functions for your practice — answering calls, managing emails, preparing documents or handling your bookkeeping, for example — so you can focus on more profitable work.

Of course, your success with a VLA depends on how well you collaborate. If you are not in sync, silos are created, leading to confusion and delays in getting work done. Most blunders are not intentional, but they can harm the relationship either way.

How to Derail Your Working Relationship

To reap the benefits of hiring a VLA, avoid these mistakes:

1. Moving Ahead Without Building Rapport

Have you ever worked with a client without building rapport? If so, it probably did not go well. Good rapport leads to trust, ensuring clients are comfortable discussing sensitive matters.

The same is true when working with a VLA. You want to build rapport so you get to know and trust each other — and you feel confident assigning tasks that contain sensitive information. To put it simply, it’s impossible to work with a legal assistant if there’s no trust.

Tip: Set aside one hour each week for a video chat to review how things are going. Open up and share a bit of something from your non-work life. It helps break the ice, allowing for a healthy relationship based on mutual trust.

2. Dumping Instead of Delegating

Assigning tasks without clear instructions is not delegation — it’s dumping. A common mistake caused by delegating haphazardly.

Lack of clear direction leads to poor quality work and will require more, not less, of your time. Even small tasks will require a lot of back and forth with your assistant. Basically, you’ll end up neglecting your core tasks.

Tip: To ensure all assignments are completed efficiently, set mutually acceptable deadlines; put instructions in writing and make sure your requirements are understood; carefully review the final work product and provide clear feedback on next steps before signing off. Remember, you assume full responsibility for the work done for your clients.

3. Failing to Find Out the VLA’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Some VLAs may be good at helping you prepare responses to opposing counsel while others have strong organization skills. You want to figure out which tasks can be easily accomplished by assistants and which will require more time and effort. This way you’ll know which task to delegate and which one to keep for yourself.

Tip: Create a training manual to guide any staff, including your VLA, through tasks they may not be familiar with. Try Udutu to create manuals with customizable prebuilt templates. The game-like scenario templates encourage better engagement. (See “Systems and Procedures: Making Your Practice Work Well, Consistently” by Dustin Cole.)

4. Frequently Changing Your Working Style

While a full-time employee will be used to the rhythm of your office and rapid changes in working styles — they have to be. VLAs, however, are independent contractors with their own working style and their own businesses to run.

For example, say your work hours fluctuate between 40 to 70 hours a week but your VLA can only commit 40 hours per week. Your long hours compared to the VLA’s fixed hours can lead to poor coordination and frustration.

Ask plenty of questions so you can decide whether the VLA’s working style will mesh with yours. Be honest about your work habits and expectations — most agencies will try to set you up with a dedicated VLA based on your style.

Tip: You need to clearly communicate your expectations before hiring a VLA.

5. Sending Mixed Signals — Or Too Many Signals

Be realistic and mindful of your VLA’s personal time. While your practice is your priority, that’s not necessarily the case for the virtual assistant.

VLAs likely have other clients to serve. If you call at odd hours without notice, chances are they won’t respond. (Would you drop everything and start working on a case just because a client walked into your office? Probably not.)

Calls during off-hours and last-minute requests create a stressed working relationship — more conflicts, less collaboration. You’ll lose precious time — or, the VLA will quit, leaving you with the pain of hiring and training a newbie.

Also be mindful of how you are communicating. Too many channels, too many messages, too much noise equals too much exhaustion. Responding to messages on different channels creates distractions. Moreover, information will be scattered among multiple channels. (“Did you email it to me or put it in Dropbox?”) Responding to and gathering messages together from various places can be tedious for both of you. And you lose context, which can lead to mediocre work.

Tip: Create communication rules. For example, phone calls and texts until 6 p.m.; past that, email only. In a true emergency, agree that you will only call before, say, 9 p.m. Review the rules with your assistant — and document them — to ensure you are both on the same page.

Winding Up

Establishing a healthy, trusting relationship with an assistant is not always easy —  especially when working virtually. But if you avoid these mistakes, a VLA can be a valuable resource that spurs your firm’s growth. With proper direction, your VLA can even baby-sit your law office in your absence.

All you have to do is plan ahead and set up proper systems. Remember, your success depends on theirs.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Niraj Ranjan Rout

Niraj is the founder of Hiver, a powerful email management and collaboration tool. When not working on programming or customer support, Niraj likes to play guitar. He can be reached on Twitter @nirajr.

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