I went to school to be a paralegal in 1985, when few outside the legal world even knew the term “paralegal.” My first job was as a litigation paralegal for an insurance defense firm. I had gone to school to be a corporate paralegal and I knew almost nothing about litigation. I had to learn fast, on the job. The only other paralegal in the firm wouldn’t help me because she feared I had been hired to replace her. Luckily, the secretaries and younger lawyers took pity on me and taught me how to do my job, and some things I figured out on my own, through trial and error.
Over the years I’ve learned ways to be more valuable to my attorneys, and I am always happy to share my knowledge with other litigation paralegals, and even attorneys. Here are a few tips:
Ask Questions (at the Right Time)
A well-trained, knowledgeable litigation paralegal should always be thinking of ways to make the attorneys’ lives easier and case handling more efficient. Every case is different, and every attorney is different, so it’s important to be flexible and ask questions. Figure out when an attorney can chat for a few minutes and broach the subject tactfully. If attorney Zack hates anyone talking to him before he has had his coffee in the morning, make sure he’s well caffeinated before you go busting in there with your great idea or question. If attorney Cindy has to pick up her kids before 6, don’t run in her office with a question at 5:30.
A big part of my job is to review records and create chronologies and/or write summaries for the attorney. I learned that it’s very useful for an attorney to have a folder online called “Important Records” or “Hot Docs” or something similar, so when he is reviewing the file in preparation for a deposition, he can take a look at what’s in that folder and see what the paralegal thought was really important. For instance, you may review 3,000 pages of medical records and create a chronology. You pull out a page from the hospital records showing at the time of the accident the plaintiff had marijuana in his system. You put that test result in the folder. Another example: Perhaps the plaintiff is claiming they are totally disabled, but you find a social media post where they talk about going hiking, so you print out that page and put it in the folder.
All Hail the Chart Queen
Years ago, I worked for a young attorney who showed me how he kept up with his assignments, which was to put them all in a chart, and then mark through each assignment as it got done. I liked that and started keeping my own assignment chart, which included due dates, case numbers, exact directions, and notes. I also realized that making charts was great for keeping track of records and information. Also, if you have lots of charts and you drop dead tomorrow, someone can look at your files and know what records have been received and reviewed, what witnesses need to be deposed, etc. It’s really important that anyone working on the file know where in the file your charts are, so if you are sick and can’t come in, the admin or attorney can open the file, look at the chart, and see at a glance what’s going on.
It’s useful to make charts for many things, for instance:
- A list of records requests sent out including provider / contact information / payment sent / whether or not they have been received.
- A list of depositions taken, including court reporter contact information / errata sheet returned? Index completed?
- A list of all the imaging in the file [x-rays, MRIs, CT Scans] including type of image / date taken / in file? / what it shows?
- A list of witnesses, including contact information / statement given / deposition taken / affidavit done / subpoena for trial?
- A list of all records sent to the expert witness including type of record / bates nos. / date sent.
Records and More Records
In a complex case, it’s critical that as soon as records are received, they are given a cursory review, so you can see if other records requests need to be sent. If records come in and are not reviewed, and they stay piled up somewhere, waiting to be scanned in, that may not happen until a week before the deposition, when you know the attorney needs that medical chronology to review. Then you review the records in the pile and realize that there are three new providers you haven’t requested records from – oops. Then you’re in a panic because a week may not be enough time to get in all the new records. (That’s when you get on the phone and sweet talk the records clerks at the medical offices and get that request faxed or emailed right away).
What Do We Already Know?
When taking the deposition of a witness in a complex case, it’s helpful to know what else has been said about him. For instance, a manager is accused of sexually harassing his female employees, according to the plaintiff. The attorney wants to go into the manager’s deposition knowing exactly what others have said, so he can ask the manager questions related to that. So instead of your attorney pulling every deposition and searching it for all mentions of the manager harassing a female employee, you do that. Then, you prepare a memo and/or chart, so your attorney only has to review your memo. It’s good to include the exact page and line number of the statement, and even to quote what was said. Quotes carry a bigger punch than a paraphrase, in a deposition. Also, you may want to note if later in the deposition the same question was asked in a different way and the deponent answered slightly differently.
Handling Tough Phone Calls
Handling business calls well is sometimes tricky. How you present yourself on the phone reflects on the attorneys you work for, and if you are unaccustomed to making or getting business calls, you need to be really clear on how to handle sometimes tough situations. Even if you have to say to someone on the phone “I’m sorry but I need to put you on hold for just a moment while I pull up the file,” it gives you time to ask the attorney, or grab your notes and look up the situation and how to deal with it.
Never assume you know how an attorney will want you to handle something, based on what another attorney taught you. Attorney Joe may want you to automatically grant opposing counsel a 30-day extension on returning discovery responses, but attorney Jane may say “NEVER agree to that unless you check with me first!”
It may be helpful to ask your attorney to set aside some time to role play with you. Any experienced attorney should be able to guide you through tough calls they’ve had to handle over the years. Ideally, you should have notes [or even a chart!] of all kinds of situations and how you should respond.
Here are a few tough calls I’ve encountered over the years:
- A client calls up crying, saying they need to settle the case because they can’t pay their bills.
- A pro se plaintiff calls up and wants to yell at you for something they don’t like about the case.
- An opposing attorney wants an extension on answering discovery [and your attorney isn’t available and the discovery is overdue].
- An opposing attorney calls up and says their car won’t start and they can’t make it to the deposition and wants to reschedule, and your attorney isn’t answering their phone.
- A court reporter calls and says she won’t do the deposition scheduled for today because your attorney hasn’t paid her for past work.
- Your mother calls and says your dad has been taken by ambulance to the hospital and she’s upset and wants you to leave work and be with her.
In conclusion, a good litigation paralegal will always seek out ways to better organize files, improve communication, and help drive cases to successful conclusions. If you’re an attorney, periodically chat with the paralegal about your case strategy because that’s usually the most fun and interesting aspect of litigation. Help your paralegal feel like a team member, not just a functionary. I always appreciated eating lunch with my attorneys, because we could talk about cases in a relaxed and collaborative way. When the attorney and paralegal work in tandem, with good communication in place, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.