Short-term legal teams offer solos and small firms help when they need it

By Kimberly Atkins

The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON, MA -- Solo practitioners or small firm attorneys facing an upcoming trial, appeal, mediation or other major project may feel like they are heading into battle alone, particularly if opposing counsel has the benefit of a larger firm's support staff.

But solos and small practices can put together legal teams -- even for short-term tasks -- that can rival their opponents', all without breaking the bank.

"I hired three full-time people to help prepare for trial," said New York solo practitioner John F. Schutty, who recently represented a client who had been wrongly convicted of rape and served more than 20 years in prison before being exonerated in a civil trial against New York City.

For some solos, the idea of going up against the legal department of the nation's largest city in a civil trial might have been daunting. But Schutty said putting together a team of qualified people to work full-time for the short term project wasn't too hard. First up: a recent law school graduate whose offer for an associate position at a large firm had been deferred for economic reasons.

"He had been working for me part-time, but after he took the bar exam, he came on full-time for two months helping me prepare for the trial," Schutty said.

Then Schutty added two paralegals to the mix, and he found himself backed by a legal team that gave him the assistance he needed to take on the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York.

"It was a document-intensive case," Schutty said. "They helped me organize and get 450 trial exhibits ready. Everything was organized so well. [After the trial] the jury complimented me on our organization and preparation."

The jury also gave him what he was looking for: an $18 million verdict in favor of his client.

Virtual help wanted

Some attorneys are under the mistaken belief that putting together a legal team requires taking on expensive contract attorneys or using pricey temp services. But there are other options. In some cases, the support a lawyer needs may just be a mouse click away.

Denise M. Annunciata is the paralegal coordinator at Virtual Paralegal Services, a Framingham, Mass.-based company that provides online-based legal support services to attorneys and firms across the country.

"We establish a relationship with our clients so that we give them exactly what they need," she said.

Going the virtual route can make sense even for short-term help.

"Some clients might use our services regularly, but in other cases I might hear from a client once a year, or even once every two years," Annunciata said.

Online-based support services generally offer the flexibility that smaller practices need, with pricing either at an hourly rate or on a project basis.

And attorneys needn't worry that taking on short-term help will jeopardize confidentiality or cause other privacy concerns. Annunciata said her company not only has a standard agreement covering all confidentiality issues, but it also adheres to state business privacy laws, which impose strict limits on the types of information that can be disclosed. Even e-mails sent between the paralegals and clients are encrypted, she said.

Looking for help in all the right places

In a still-soft economy, finding help for a project is easier than ever, said Carolyn Elefant, a Washington-based attorney and author of the book "Solo By Choice" and the blog MyShingle. Lots of people are looking for work, even if just for the short term.

"It's unfortunate, but it really is a buyers' market, and there are a lot of people who don't have jobs who are really good," Elefant said.

A good way to find qualified candidates is to check the listservs of local and state bar associations and attorney organizations. Many lawyers offer services ranging from document review to legal research and writing and trial exhibit preparation. They can also often work virtually, giving their attorney clients a big boost -- even during trial.

"One potential benefit of those who work virtually is that you can be in a courtroom, and if an issue comes up, you can break and have them do spot research for you," Elefant said.

Good help can also be found in unusual places.

"One option is Craigslist," Elefant said of the free online listing service. "There are, of course, a lot of caveats. I have had some amazing luck on Craigslist, and I have had some not-very-good luck. You have got to be laser-specific in putting up your ad. [I] was really specific about the level and experience and background that I was looking for."

Published: Fri, Feb 4, 2011