Read as Cathy Ribble gets JobShadowed about her career as a Paralegal. You can find her at www.digitalparalegalservices.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar.
What do you do for a living?
I am an Advanced Certified Paralegal in the area of Trial Practice. My certification credential was awarded after completion of an extensive examination by the National Association of Legal Assistants. Rather than working in a traditional law firm office, my services are now provided virtually via the internet to licensed U.S. attorneys. My business is operated as Digital Paralegal Services, LLC, and I am the sole member/owner of that entity.
How would you describe what you do?
I basically assist attorneys in providing legal representation for their clients. The type of assistance needed varies from day to day. I like to put it this way, “Paralegals do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
What does your work entail?
My actual day-to-day work closely follows the American Bar Association’s definition of a paralegal. I maintain client files, draft correspondence and other legal documents, perform legal research and investigative research using the internet. I determine and monitor deadlines as well as organizing and analyzing documents. Sometimes that means thousands of pages of documents. Much of my work has been focused in the civil litigation practice area. I monitor cases through all phases of the litigation process, trying to anticipate what my attorneys will need next. As a virtual paralegal, I find that I do the very same tasks which I performed while employed in a traditional law firm. Now, I do those same tasks from my home office and communicate with my attorneys primarily by email.
What’s a typical work week like?
Owning my own business enables me to have some flexibility in my schedule for a better work/life balance. In addition to my paralegal work for my attorney-clients, I also have many other responsibilities in operating a business (bookkeeping, marketing, writing blog posts, social media, and maintaining websites). A normal work week means all day Monday through Friday and usually some work on Saturday morning. Depending on the caseload and pressing deadlines, I may also work Sunday afternoon and Sunday evenings. As my attorney-client base grows I have less free time, but I am still able to maintain flexibility.
How did you get started?
I began working in a law office as a receptionist-bookkeeper while I was finishing high school. I was intrigued with the law library and became familiar with many of the publications while managing the publication updates. As I observed a NALA-certified paralegal and other experienced legal secretaries in the office, I admired their professionalism and their legal knowledge. They were able to independently handle many details for their attorneys. The senior partner at that firm and his paralegal began to mentor me. They took time to teach me that in legal work excellence is required in every detail. They answered questions and explained the logic and reasoning behind the many tasks they completed each day.
My legal education has come through on-the-job training and personal study. I became busy raising my three children and supporting my husband’s career. While I neglected obtaining a college education, I believe that all of life is a constant learning experience if we take advantage of the opportunities before us. A college degree has become increasingly important in the legal industry and is now often required by many firms for employment as a paralegal.
After over 15 years of actual law office experience and achieving my professional certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants, I was no longer satisfied with my work-life balance. I invested 6 months of my time in researching the virtual assistant profession and studying the tools which were used for document exchange. I examined how those tools could be applied to an attorney-paralegal relationship while still protecting ethical guidelines.
What do you like about what you do?
As a business owner I have more control over who I work with, what tools are available to complete my work, and my overall caseload. I am a detail-minded person, so I enjoy organizing information and documents. Litigation work, in particular, provides many opportunities to use those skills. Working with the documents helps me understand the legal issues presented. I enjoy feeling like I am a valuable member of the litigation team, and that my contributions are valuable. I also enjoy the opportunity to work more closely with attorneys in other states. That enables me to tap into a higher compensation level than is available locally as a full-time employee.
What do you dislike?
Sometimes it is not fun to be “the one in charge.” I have to wear many hats at the same time, and ultimately everything is my responsibility. In the coming year, I will be bringing on a full-time assistant to help.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I work on a contract basis with attorneys at an hourly rate. I am not an employee, so I have no retirement benefits, overtime pay, sick leave, bonuses, or vacation pay. Attorneys are only billed for the actual time I am working on their assignments. My current business model provides for semi-monthly billing. My hourly rate is much higher than an employee’s hourly rate, but I also provide all my own equipment and supplies.
How much money do Virtual Paralegals make?
Virtual paralegal billing rates vary according to the level of paralegal specialization required by the attorney. These rates are not to be confused with normal hourly employee rates. Virtual paralegals are independent business owners who provide their own computers, software, office supplies and other tools. They have no employee benefits, no vacation or sick time, and they do not receive overtime pay. Typical rates for an experienced virtual paralegal with good specialization skills in a specific practice area run from $55 per hour to as much as one-third of the attorney’s hourly rate. New virtual paralegals will probably earn $30-$40 per hour. Net income after your business expenses will vary based on the time and financial investments in your business.
How much money do/did you make starting out as a Virtual Paralegal?
It took me 4 months to sign my first client. My initial hourly rate was $30 per hour, and my first client averaged approximately 25 hours per month in the first few months.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
I personally believe that a paralegal should have extensive legal and administrative experience within the actual walls of a law firm or legal department before he or she attempts to practice virtually. In addition to paralegal training through degree programs, classes, seminars and certifications, you will want to investigate programs for virtual assistants. You need to understand that you are starting a business. If you do not currently know how to do something, can you learn quickly?
You need to evaluate your ability to manage your time and establish your long-term goals. Spend some time learning about the operation and management of a small business. Practicing virtually involves so much more than simply emailing files back and forth. You must have basic document skills already developed in an office setting. Develop your “virtual” skills by learning new technology allowing for secure exchange of legal files over the internet. As an independent business owner, you need good judgment, analytical ability and problem-solving skills.
Initially you are going to be the person who does everything from financial decisions, copywriting for your web site, marketing, negotiating your contracts with new clients, writing press releases, recommending software services and applications, performing your paralegal work, and then billing for the work.
What is most challenging about what you do?
I think the most challenging task is simply staying abreast of all the technology options and getting all your individual tech tools to sync together seamlessly. There is no “one size fits all” option. Different attorneys have different ideas about the technology they want to use. New technology companies and features are released every day.
What is most rewarding?
I am investing my time and energy with long-term goals that will benefit my family. My work is no longer “just a job or paycheck” – it is my passion.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Be patient while you get your base paralegal experience under your belt. Start watching virtual paralegals who are successful and begin making notes about what you envision for your own virtual paralegal career. Connect with one or more virtual paralegals you can look to as mentors.
Set a Google Alert for “virtual paralegal” and start monitoring how the virtual paralegal profession is developing. Resources are available to help you achieve your dreams!
How much time off do you get/take?
I usually manage to take off 2 days each week, but they might not be full days. I am also able to schedule several days at a time that I can enjoy family time or take care of family responsibilities. I also take extra time during December to prepare for and celebrate Christmas.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
It is a fairly common misconception that my paralegal services are offered to the general public. My services are provided only to licensed U.S. attorneys. I want to avoid any activity which could be construed as the unauthorized practice of law.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
My goal is to build Digital Paralegal Services, LLC into a business which will see me into retirement. One of my daughters will likely join my team , and I look forward to working together with her to expand our reach, helping other paralegals achieve their dreams of working virtually.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Becoming a virtual paralegal is most definitely a realistic goal – but it comes with much hard work, and you should be prepared for the possibility that the rewards for your time and effort may take some time to come your way.