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[Guest Blog] A day in the life of a criminal law VA.... and other FAQs

A day in the life of a criminal law VA

(and other frequently asked questions about being or hiring a VA)

By Danielle Blanch, Founder, Nova VA Solutions

I am a Virtual Assistant (VA) and I work from home, with my dogs.

My background is working as a Field Officer for the Aboriginal Legal Service, in private legal practice as a personal assistant to criminal lawyers and at Legal Aid NSW.

I started my VA business for 2 reasons:

1.     to work flexibly around my dogs (yes, I am a crazy dog lady!). I don’t have any children and felt extremely guilty leaving my dogs home all the time, paying someone else to hang out with them; and

2.      I was also working two jobs. I was doing the admin work for my husband’s busy Lawn and Garden business of a nighttime and working in an office during the day, burning the candle at both ends and burning myself out in the process.

When my husband’s business got so big, I started looking around for a casual assistant who could do the work for us, however, not having an office space I had no idea how we could make it work. Then a MamaMia blog post popped (in that crazy we are not listening to your thoughts kind of way) into my Facebook feed about work from home mums and it mentioned Ingrid Bayer from the VA institute.

That was all I needed, I googled the letters “VA” and thought I CAN DO THIS!  The next day I was on the phone with Ingrid and started my training with her program at The VA Institute. Fast-forward 7 months, I took leave without pay from my full time job with Legal aid in July and jumped head first into starting my own business.

In my first week, I started with 2 clients:

  • a large firm who engaged me to undertake additional work supporting their administration team during a busy period, and

  • a sole practitioner who I help to build her firm from the ground up.

What does a VA do for their clients?

Currently I offer a variety of services and, being criminal law specific, my main task is applying for legal aid grants online for the lawyers I assist. In doing this for them I free up time for them and ensure they can devote their time to other areas of their practice. Once I have the log in details, I can easily access the legal aid grants portal from my home office.

However, I also have access to the various customer relationship manager systems (CRM) that the firms use and diaries and I do transcription/dictation, electronic file management, data entry, cold call clients, chase up overdue accounts, chase up finances, find agents, find clients, contact rehab centres, Courts, counsel and the Public Defender. If it can be done virtually, I can do it.

I attend a local firm once a week in person and do some of the physical tasks for that firm as well. A sole practitioner owns the office and I am her only admin support.  I find this beneficial because it keeps me “visual” to the lawyers, and it gets me out and about once a week, helping to keep me sane, as I tend to get a little stir crazy talking to the dogs all day.

Specialised services

Because I am in the niche of criminal law, I can add value to my clients by establishing a “Brief” service where lawyers I work for want to brief a matter out to a Barrister. As part of this service, the client sends me their Brief of evidence, I make a copy for the barrister and their client and collate, tab and index. I then return it to the lawyer in a nice little bundle. I am told this is one of the most time-consuming tasks for a lawyer who is already strapped for time. Not to mention the issues that can arise trying to get highly confidential legal material photocopied in an office environment.

Why use a VA over a traditional legal secretary?

A VA can be versatile. Depending on where a law firm is at, dictates the type of staff the firm (or sole practitioner) will need.  For example, for a lawyer just branching out in sole practice, a VA could be a perfect and completely cost effective during the building stages of a business.  Particularly if the lawyer also runs a virtual office. Think about the savings on real estate costs.

In terms of experience and skills, a VA is an experienced specialist who will usually know the programs or software you use, so some basic training for your systems may be required, but we are usually ready to hit the ground running.

A Virtual Assistant is typically a contractor, meaning we charge at an hourly or package rate, we have our own equipment so no IT cost, we have our insurance, we do our own payroll and you are not obligated to work with us on an ongoing basis or provide set hours. Sounds like a dream team member, right?!

The charge out rate for a VA is usually from $35 + per hour depending on the task, and here in Australia each small business owner sets their own pricing depending on their skills and services offered.

I personally time record (like many of the lawyers who engage me) and send my principal a detailed report of the work I have done with each invoice.

Finally, I work flexibly. I am a night owl and prefer to work that way. I am not so fond of mornings, but other Virtual Assistants are. There will no doubt be the perfect VA match for most business owners out there.

Is client information safe with a VA?

Due diligence is crucial when you bring your VA on board. A contractor (or service) agreement and confidentiality obligations documented are always a good idea. While there are no standard operating procedures or governance in place to manage this, if a VA in Australia has been certified by an organization such as the VA institute, Virtually Yours or other training organisations, it is a good indication that they have been trained.

Do not be afraid to ask your VA what tools they use and how they will protect your confidentiality. For example, you may want to ask them to work only at home or in your office. Working in cafes with confidential material and free Wi-Fi logins can be a disaster for client confidentiality.

When a new client engages Nova VA, I have them sign a service agreement that details my confidentiality obligations and the measures I have in place to ensure no breach of a client’s confidential information is made. I also ensure that I do not save client passwords to my computer and use a program called Last Pass that holds all this information like a vault.  I also never save a client’s information to my computer, preferring to use the cloud sharing systems they have or deleting after the information is sent to them.  

What sort of insurance does a VA have?

I have insurance to cover any professional liability on my behalf. I have a separate space in my home where I work, and my Laptop is password protected. I use an IT company to support my IT requirements who are also bound by my agreement.

As a VA I may sub-contract out some of my use contractors and same rules apply; they are usually trusted VAs within our network that help us in our busy periods again they are bound by our agreements and procedures. You can request that for certain matters, or at all we don’t engage contractors. I personally will not engage a sub-contractor on matters that are highly sensitive or hold a high media presence.

How do I engage a VA?

So, unsurprisingly, most Virtual Assistants hang out online. Start with Google and see if you find what you are after or you can save time and go to central sites like www.vainstitute.com.au, or www.findava.com.au which connect clients with appropriately qualified
Australian VAs. 

Many Vas are also registered with Virtually Yours https://www.virtuallyyours.com.au/directory, which is like the phone book for VA’s and post on LinkedIn, Seek, twitter etc. Freelancer sites such as Upwork etc are also a possibility. However, in my case, assisting in a specialised field such as law, the assistance is far more niche.   

What if work slows down or the VA relationship breaks down?

This is the beauty of a VA, there is no lock in contract so if hard times hit or the VA relationship breaks down, it is easier to end than a traditional employment relationship and it is typically documented in the service agreement signed at the start of the relationship.

However, my advice is not to use or abuse this fact and communicate regularly about workflow and expectations in terms of getting work done.

Who handles all the paper files?

Lawyers are creatures of habit and a lot of them LOVE paper.

Criminal law is still very paper heavy because the Police continue to serve paper briefs and lawyers take their paper files to court. One of my passions is to help the lawyers I assist, step into a new way of doing things by implementing a neat and tidy online system. A lot of the online CRM software programs lawyers use are great for storing client’s information and for lawyers to access from anywhere.

I encourage the lawyers I work for to get paperless by buying a digital note taker to create electronic file notes to email to me, to dictate on their phone in the car on the way home from court. If they do this I can ensure their documents are there and ready in the CRM with no more messy files or lost paper. There is also a huge saving on archiving and storage material for lawyers to be had as these new ways are adapted.

 How do VAs communicate?

Email, Facebook, text, call, Skype, messenger, smoke signals … whatever!  The virtual world has endless opportunities for communication, just don’t try and complicate things. I have clients I have never actually spoken to on the phone. It’s up to you and your VA what works best.

Get a VA – now!

Honestly, if you haven’t looked at this way of working you should. A skilled and competent VA could provide you that vital support you need to ensure your client is getting the A+ service you are charging them for.

12 months ago I had no idea what a VA was… now I am one and when I have a conversation with someone who tells me they are struggling with their workload, I am able to say that there is someone right here in Australia that could relieve that burden today!

I love talking, and now that I’m working at home I don’t do enough of it, so if you ever want to just chat and ask some questions, I offer free discovery calls. We can talk about your business and how a VA may benefit you.

About the Author

Danielle (or Dell) Blanch is the founder of Nova VA Solutions.

Nova VA provides virtual support to Criminal lawyers and criminal Law firms and works alongside her two gorgeous dogs from her Newcastle home.