What Does a Paralegal Do at Trial?
Paralegals assist New York city personal injury attorneys in a variety of ways. Some of the most demanding and important tasks are during a trial. While attorneys are the spokespersons in the courtroom, paralegals are the backbone of the trial team. They can spend countless hours coordinating the thousands of details that must be accomplished before, during, and after a trial.
Here is a breakdown of the personal injury trial process and how paralegals might aid in each part:
Before the trial even begins, a paralegal has many tasks to accomplish. Many paralegals who work with trial attorneys will take the lead in pre-claim investigation.
During investigation, the paralegal may perform many tasks including:
- Locating and interviewing witnesses
- Taking witness statements
- Gathering documents and evidence
- Creating case investigation notebooks
- Organizing documents and evidence
- Creating a chronology of facts pertaining to the case
Not every case goes to trial. In fact, a lot happens before a case even makes it to the court room. Paralegals play an important part of the pre-trial pleading process. Paralegals on the plaintiff side may assist in drafting pleadings including the summons, complaint, and supporting affidavits. Paralegals who work with the defense may collaborate with the client to investigate the allegations and respond. Paralegals also perform the task of creating and maintaining pleadings indexes and filing pleadings with the court. In addition, paralegals keep a calendar of hearing dates and filing deadlines to ensure all documents or appearances are timely.
The majority of a paralegal’s time is spent in discovery during the trial process. During discovery, paralegals aid attorneys in drafting interrogatories, requests for production, and requests for admissions and other discovery.
In addition, paralegals:
- Create and maintain discovery indexes
- Organize case files
- Calendar discovery deadlines
- Organize, review and analyze documents
- Prepare deposition summaries
- Organize, summarize, and analyze medical records
- Assist with e-discovery
Voir Dire, or the jury selection process, is the first part of the trial process. Attorneys are engaging with the jury during this process, so it is up to the paralegal to take thorough notes. Paralegals who have experience with voir dire can even be called upon to assist the attorney in the selection of the jury.
Paralegals spend a lot of time with the client(s), witnesses, evidence, and other parts of the case during trial preparation. Because of this, paralegals tend to know their cases better than anyone, even the attorney. Many paralegals will outline the opening statement for the trial attorney.
Working with Witnesses
Paralegals work with witnesses in a variety of ways. Witnesses called by the injury attorney will be prepped by the paralegal before the trial. In addition, the paralegal will ensure the witness is in court when needed and prepared. Paralegals also help attorneys by listening for ways to impeach the testimony from witnesses called by the other side.
One of the most important tasks a paralegal is called to perform during a trial is ensuring all the exhibits that need to be part of the record have been offered and admitted. In addition, all unnecessary exhibits should be withdrawn.
Paralegals serves as a second pair of eyes and ears in the courtroom. Because of this, they have a different perspective than the attorney. A paralegal has great insight into jurors’ reactions to certain topics, which they can relay to the attorney. This can change the course of trial, including knowing which witnesses or arguments to avoid.
Audio Visual Equipment
At trial, an attorney should only be focused on one thing. Because of this, it falls to the paralegal to run all the audio visual equipment. This likely includes recording the trial so the attorney can listen to it later if needed.
By the end of the trial, everyone is tired. This is especially true of the attorney. It is the paralegal’s job to keep him or her going. This often involves drafting closing arguments for the attorney.
If one side decides to settle before the judge or jury reaches a verdict, paralegals will assist attorneys in the process of case settlement.
- Gathering and organizing information for the settlement
- Creating settlement brochures
- Distributing statement or negotiation checklists
- Drafting settlement agreements and releases
If a case goes into appeal, a paralegal, especially one who worked on the original case, will assist with a variety of tasks, including:
- Identifying issues with the appeal
- Gathering and organizing documents needed for the appeal
- Indexing cases for a table of authorities
- Conducting research
- Drafting and filing appellant documents with the court.
From case inception to the appeals process, paralegals are involved every step of the way.
Paralegals may not stand before the court to speak, but they play a pivotal role in the trial process.
Article provided by Fremont College – College of Legal Studies
Key Ways Paralegals Are an Indispensable Asset to Injury Law Firms
There are many different career paths within the field of law. One of the most popular areas of law to work in is Personal Injury. However, you do not have to be a lawyer to work in injury law. One of the most important positions within injury law firms is that of the paralegal. While paralegals do not practice law, they play a vital role within the legal team and are valuable assets within any law firm.
We have gathered together some of the key ways paralegals are an indispensable asset to any injury law firm:
Paralegals must be effective communicators to be successful at their jobs. Whether interviewing a new client, contacting an expert, or taking the statement of a witness, the majority of a paralegal’s time is spent communicating with others. In addition, the paralegal serves as the lawyer’s right-hand, and must acts as a liaison between clients, experts, opposing counsel, and their supervising attorney.
In addition, paralegals must have excellent writing skills. Litigation paralegals are responsible for drafting correspondence, pleadings, discovery, motions, briefs, legal memorandums, and other documents. These can range from simple to complex.
Geared Skill Set
Paralegals are required to possess a specific set of skills to be successful in their field. Paralegals must be organized and multi-taskers, who can prioritize and work efficiently in a fast-paced environment. Paralegals have a long list of responsibilities that can be tedious and mundane, while others are high-level tasks that are more important and interesting.
Depending on the size of the injury law firm and how much experience the paralegal possess, he or she could:
- Interview potential clients
- Provide customer service to existing clients
- Communicate on behalf of attorney
- Compile discoveries
- Organize case files
- Draft pleadings and correspondence
- Order medical records
- Review incoming records
- Draft demands
- Review witness lists
Research is another core paralegal skill. There are many different legal research methods, from traditional work done at a law library to Internet research and legal research databases. In addition to conducting effective research, paralegals must learn to analyze case facts and properly cite legal authority.
Like attorneys, paralegals focus on area of the law. Personal injury paralegals often have specialized knowledge within the injury field that sets them apart from other paralegals. Those who work in the injury field should have enough medical knowledge to handle the medical aspects of a case, such as ascertaining which medical records and bills need to be obtained, medical terminology, and how to prepare medical chronologies, medical expense itemizations, deposition summaries and demand packages.
In addition, many injury paralegals are familiar with prescription medications and how they relate to the client’s claim. Many are also familiar with human anatomy and various types of injuries, such as those that pose permanent implications or may necessitate future surgery or lifelong expenses.
Personal injury paralegals must also become well-versed in the trial process. Paralegals play an important role in trial preparation and the actual trial process itself.
Important tasks a paralegal may be called to do include:
- Witness preparation
- Preparing voir dire outlines, opening and closing statements, and witness outlines
- Determine what exhibits will be utilized
- Ensure exhibits are properly prepared and available when needed
Paralegals must be good team players. The delivery of legal services is a complex process that requires a team of individuals with multiple skills. To provide quality and cost-effective service, paralegals are often important members of this team. Paralegals form part of a larger legal team comprised of associates, partners, fellow paralegals, legal secretaries, and more. In addition to working as an effective team member, paralegals must also work collaboratively with outside parties, such as clients, opposing counsel, experts, and witnesses.
The injury law field offers individuals a unique opportunity to help others. Depending on the area a paralegal works in, he or she would help injured plaintiffs receive compensation for their losses. This type of work tends to attract those who care about others and want to help.
The Right Education
In addition to the skills, knowledge, and experience listed above, injury law paralegals often have formal training through an ABA approved paralegal studies program. These specialized programs help students develop proper written and oral communications skills, gain knowledge of conducting research, and even specialize in personal injury or other field of law.
In addition to formal education, such as a four-year program, paralegals can earn a certificate. Certification is not required to practice as a paralegal, but many earn this extra certification to have an edge in the job market. Certification establishes an expected level of competency, which sets these earners apart from other paralegals. Paralegals who complete programs approved through the American Bar Association will have the skills needed to be a successful, effective, and indispensable member of any legal team.
Ultimate Guide to Paralegal Ethics & Rules
Ethics is one of the most important aspects of working in the field of law. As a paralegal, you cannot legally practice law. However, you are still bound by the same ethics that bind attorneys.
Here is a guide to the rules and code of ethics for paralegals, breaking down some of the most important to know as a paralegal.
Guide to Becoming a Paralegal
To become a paralegal, you must already possess ethical behavior. In many states, individuals with felony convictions cannot become paralegals. Many corporations and injury law firms will also refuse to hire a paralegal with a felony conviction, even if the state does not outlaw it. In many cases, this can extend to other types of criminal history and even poor credit scores. This is because some companies see a poor credit score and unpaid bills as a sign of instability or lack of responsibility. Most paralegals will go through a background check. If there is evidence of unethical behavior in a background check, it is unlike the person would get or retain a job as a paralegal.
As a Paralegal
Once you become a paralegal, ethics are even more important.
Here are some of the key areas of ethics you should understand and follow:
While primary regulations apply to attorneys, it is still important to understand and follow them. Attorneys are regulated through the judicial system. In many states, gaining membership to the state bar is mandatory to practice law. The American Bar Association (ABA) is a voluntary association, but many attorneys are members. This important body has adopted the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to maintain the standards of attorneys across the nation. These rules of professional conduct should serve as a guide to paralegals and legal assistants when navigating ethical issues.
The most applicable rule to paralegals is Rule 5.3, which defines the responsibilities of attorneys when working with paralegals. Though it does not define the responsibilities of paralegals, it still has important implications for paralegals, and is important to know:
“With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:
1. A partner, and a lawyer who individually or together with other lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority in a law firm shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer;
2. A lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer; and
3. A lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of such a person that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if:
- The lawyer orders or, with the knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or
- The lawyer is a partner or has comparable managerial authority in the law firm in which the person is employed, or has direct supervisory authority over the person, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.”
Although not specifically defined, a paralegal is the nonlawyer to which this rule refers. Section (a) simply states that the attorney needs to make reasonable efforts to ensure that your is compatible with his or her professional obligations. Section (b) requires the attorney to supervise and is responsible for the nonlawyer’s conduct. Section (c) states that an attorney is in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if he or she orders the unethical conduct, or knows of the unethical conduct and fails to take steps to stop or correct it.
Though the attorney is responsible for your actions as a paralegal, and can end up facing discipline if you act unethically, punishment will fall on you. It is ultimately up to you to act ethically.
Navigating the Gray Areas
When you work as a paralegal, the judicial system, attorneys, the public, and the law expect you to behave ethically. While some decisions are easy to make, such as not doing something if it is illegal, some fall into a “gray area.” Depending on the field and type of work you do, you could find yourself facing client confidentiality, disclosure laws, and legal technicalities. A good guide for navigating these tricky, gray areas is to ask yourself if it violates anything in the attorney’s code of conduct. In addition, you can look to guidance from your paralegal association. If you become part of an association or paralegal network, you can come into contact with others who experience the same dilemmas and can offer sound advice.