The average lawyer spends only 2.5 hours a day on billable client work. So while working at or running a law firm sometimes calls on one person to wear many hats, revenue growth is limited when lawyers are already spread thin.
As a method of handling this workflow and focusing more time on billable hours and client service, many lawyers and firms consider outsourcing as a solution to help them either get other tasks handled or to serve as an overflow for legal work. Unfortunately, both of these situations can raise unique concerns and questions about the ethics involved.
Outsourcing non-legal work: ethical issues to consider
One popular outsourcing method is to turn to a part-time in-person employee or virtual freelancer to handle administrative, research, client intake and scheduling, social media, and other tasks.
Freelancers, however, make a living by working for multiple clients at once. By the very nature of being plugged into your website, project management software, or even client management system, they might learn things about your business or clients that you’d prefer they kept to themselves. So get them to sign a nondisclosure statement at the outset of the working relationship, and be sure they understand what it means, too.
Furthermore, conflicts of interest can emerge when a part-time paralegal or administrative assistant works for other law firms in your area or opposing counsel.
It’s both appropriate and suggested that you verify no other immediate conflicts of interest with anyone you bring into your firm for part-time or contract work.
Leveraging outside marketing support
One of the most critical aspects of using an individual freelancer or a marketing firm for the creation or management of email newsletters, copy on your website, and social media is avoiding violations of Model Rules 7.1, 7.4, and 7.5, all of which relate to how you communicate about yourself or your firm’s services. Verify that any provider of outside marketing services is aware of the dos and don’ts around language posted on these places.
The best way to approach this is to hire marketing professionals who have experience in the legal industry.
Outsourcing bookkeeping and accounting
As it relates to outsourcing bookkeeping and accounting specifically, the primary concern of the outsourcing manager should be to prevent instances of or opportunities for fraud. Lawyers are still ethically responsible for the management of trust accounts, even if other parties working for the firm are in some way involved with those accounts.
Every nonlawyer employee or ongoing contractor within the firm should receive regular training around ethics to ensure consistency.
Using consistent processes and documentation for every internal hire or outsourced team will help minimize the possibility of avoidable mistakes and ethical problems.
Outsourcing legal work
A high volume of billable work brings up the opportunity to hire a lawyer from outside the firm. Whether a lawyer friend from the local bar association or someone hired for these services online, the hiring lawyer must understand the risks and ethical issues of doing this.
Delegating substantive legal work raises some additional questions and calls for further consideration of how you hand these tasks and files to someone else.
Outsourcing is, in many states, allowed so long as the principal lawyer holds that primary responsibility for competent legal work. Proper vetting of any legal services provider is critical, followed up by documentation surrounding the firm’s review process.
As with all cases, lawyers also maintain a responsibility to:
- Verify there are no conflicts of interest
- Protect confidential information associated with your clients
- Make the outsourcing arrangement clear to the client
- Ensure proper supervision of the legal work and avoid unauthorized practicing of law
Never assume that a newly-hired temporary associate or overflow legal professional will jump right in and follow the same process as the rest of your firm. Instead, provide clear onboarding instructions and training, including the ethics and values your firm adheres to when it comes to client work.
Outsourcing nonlegal and legal work is a great way to save time, clock more billable hours, and grow the firm’s revenue, but it should always be done with intention and care.