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Can Lawyers Bill Virtual Assistant Time to a Client?

Sadly, lawyers across the country can't just shout out in unison: 'Alexa! Make me a thousand dollars a week!' Well, while we can say the words, neither Alexa nor Siri are likely to comply.

However, one day, we could very well live in that world as legal technology doesn't show any signs of slowing down. An AI legal assistant could, in theory, perform intake, file setup, task management, legal research, and more. And as we approach that world, certain questions are going to come up, and likely to be chief among those questions is whether it is ever appropriate to charge a legal client for a virtual assistant's time, or work product.

Punch in the Digital Gut

While most attorneys will probably have the same initial gut reaction that billing a client for a virtual assistant's time or work is bound to be an ethics violation, this may not necessarily be the case. Back before every online legal research platform became subscription based, clients could be charged for the costs associated with legal research beyond just attorney time if the platform charged a per search cost. Now, as the Wisconsin Bar Association explains, as times changed access to computerized research tools became a cost of doing business, and not a client recoverable cost.

Similarly, if a virtual assistant has a fixed cost associated with its use for a client, depending on your fee agreement, those costs may be proper, and easy, to pass through. But determining those costs may be a much greyer area than it already it is for real life paralegals. Generally, the rule is that non-secretarial tasks, or tasks that an attorney would be able to bill a client for, if performed by a trained staff member, like a law clerk or paralegal, can be billed at market rates (if included in the fee agreement).

Slap in the Assistant's Face

Unfortunately, once an actual, humanoid type AI assistant is helping around the office, it will likely complicate matters significantly. The line between transactional cost and AI labor may be one that requires the AI to help clarify. For instance, an AI paralegal specially trained/programmed to complete legal research could have a specific hourly cost attached to it, that could be billed through to clients, though this would have to be clearly disclosed in the fee agreement.

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