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Although the server's work may be less detailed or expensive than that of the investigator, it's often just as critical to the success of the case. Unserved or wrongly served defendants can cause huge scheduling delays and damage an otherwise well-planned case.
As with investigators, use word-of-mouth referrals and recommendations from other attorneys and paralegals to choose an effective server. Some attorney service firms do a high-volume business, serving and filing several hundred papers per day. While these cost-effective firms may be useful for "ordinary" services, they may not handle harder jobs. Other firms may specialize in difficult services and locates, and the price of their work is reflected in the degree of difficulty.
If you could ask for three words to help choose a good process server, they would be: reliability, reliability, and reliability. Process servers literally hold the future of your case in their hands. Their ability to find and serve the defendant should be matched by their speed and accuracy in filing the proof-of-service forms. You don't need lazy, sloppy, or money-hungry process servers ruining potentially good cases for your firm with their shortcuts, unethical behavior, or rules violations.
There are plenty of good stories about crafty servers who use perfectly legal methods to catch their defendants unawares. One celebrated process server learned his defendant liked to take morning swims in the ocean. He waited until she was rinsing off in an outdoor shower near the beach parking lot before he served her with civil papers wrapped in a well-sealed plastic bag.
Another veteran process server waited all day in an office lobby for a child-support defendant to appear. This person knew a process server was after him and had taken to sprinting away if anyone even called him by name. On this day, however, the process server had a picture of the defendant and called to him as he crossed the office lobby. The defendant ran for an open, empty elevator car, but the server got there at the same time. He tossed the papers at the defendant's feet and said, "You've been served!" as the elevator doors closed around him.
Above all else, choose an aggressive server with good people skills, plenty of patience, and a head for details and accuracy. And as with your private investigators, never ask a process server to lie about serving someone, cheat the court filing rules, break any laws, or otherwise jeopardize a case just to serve someone.
Here's a message from one licensed process server, Rhys Daryl Adams, owner of a San Diego-based process service and private investigation firm. Besides specializing in hard-to-locate and hard-to-serve defendants, he also conducts back ground checks, asset searches, and skip traces.
Daryl Adams is a veteran process server who goes out of his way to make paralegals' lives easier. He gives all his clients a four- copy carbonless form to fill out for each process service. He asks his paralegal clients to type the form completely, adding additional or special instructions as necessary. Here's a brief primer on what most process servers expect from paralegals:
"Fill out the form completely," he says. "The more I know about the defendant, the faster I can serve him or her. Make sure to give me the case number, the presiding court, and the full names of both the client and the defendant, as well as everything you know about the defendant, like the home and work addresses, home and work phone numbers, mailing addresses, and even a physical description, Social Security number, or driver's license number if it's going to be a difficult service."
He continues, "Please list all documents exactly as they should appear on the proof of service. List the defendant's name exactly as it is to appear on the proof of service. In some courts, if there are mistakes, the clerk will send the proof back with red pen marks all over it. You'll have to retype the whole thing and have it signed again if a letter, space, or comma is omitted."
Daryl Adams talks about special services: "It's fine to list a husband and wife on one form if they live at the same address. But if you have separate addresses for home and work, you need to list the wife to be served at the residence if she in fact does not work at the husband's business. All other people need to be listed on separate forms in case they are not at the home address and have left the business address.
"Make sure that all your instructions to the process server are clear and concise. Don't assume anything, as some servers will do only what is written for them and nothing more. Spell it out, like the total number of documents to be served in case one is misplaced." As time is always a factor in process service, Daryl Adams suggests you mark all deadline dates as clearly as possible, circling them in red ink right on the forms. You should also type any instructions: "Call attorney when served," "Wait to file proof of service," or "Last day to serve or file," "Made two attempts already," etc. This tells the server exactly how and when to proceed and eliminates miscommunication problems later.
Sub-service cases also require special instructions. "If you want the papers to be sub-served, it's important to give an extra copy to the process server. Then he or she can mail the extra copy back to you."
Daryl Adams offers some suggestions for choosing a process service firm: "You need to know in your mind that the person who carries these important documents for your law firm is honest, sincere, prompt, and well-groomed. Each factor plays an important role in service of process.
"In this business, honesty is everything. It all comes down to a simple question: Did the process server really go to the defendant's home or work or did he or she just toss the papers in the trash? I've heard horror stories where certain process servers simply tossed out the papers and typed proofs of service, never intending to go to the addresses or make attempts.
"As a paralegal, you should keep close tabs as to what is going on with each service. Keep in contact with your process server and be organized. Keep a copy of the invoice from the process service company in the client's file as a permanent record."
Daryl Adams concludes by saying, "Most process servers want to do a good job for their clients. The more help and guidance you can give them at the start, the better the service will turn out, which is what really matters."
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