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What Should a Paralegal Do When a Relevant Person in a Case Goes Missing?

( 7 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
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Don't lose sleep over what you cannot control or couldn't have foreseen. Regardless of what the attorneys or other related case participants say, it's not the end of the world. There are always other ways to proceed even though it seems as if everyone who is important to your case is gone. In these apparent last-resort situations, you can rely on taped conversations for missing witnesses, sub-service or service by publication for your missing defendants, and due-diligence court orders to get your share of client settlement fees, Focus your attention and energies on more positive outcomes:

Finding these people and successfully closing the case. Concentrate on which people you need to find, when you need to find them, where, how, and why. You'll need to budget some of your time, an investigator's time, and most likely some money from your firm's expense account.


Start looking immediately for your missing person: In most cases, time is of the essence. Don't waste a single minute floundering around for more information, motivation, or a place to start. If you wait too long to start the chase, you'll get far behind and fall into the "You just missed him" trap.

As soon as you hear of or recognize a potential problem, get busy. Pick up the phone, call your firm's outside investigators, and give them all the information they'll need to start a "skip trace." Try not to waste time tracking undeliverable certified letters or disconnected phone numbers. Focus your efforts on postal checks, telephone directory assistance, credit and property searches, and places of employment first. These areas usually offer the best results in the least amount of time.

Use a checklist each time you search for missing people: Create a checklist of skip trace and locate activities for missing persons. Make copies and add them to your problem case files. Using the checklist ensures you won't forget any critical steps or leave out any important information that may become useful later. It also keeps you from covering old ground and wasting time tracking dead end leads.

Be prepared to wait for results: Witnesses, defendants, and clients can disappear and reappear as if by magic. One day, after you've abandoned all hope, your long-lost client will miraculously phone your office to ask, "Whatever happened with my case?"

Finding missing people takes equal portions of skill and patience, but it also requires a fair amount of plain old luck. You may stumble across a piece of information that solves the entire mystery, or you may get a call from the missing person out of the blue. You may just have to resign yourself to the fact that all you can do is all you can do and wait for something to happen. If you apply proven search methods and invest some time and patience in the waiting game, you may be rewarded with the people or information you seek.

Following the Trail Yourself

The more you can do on your own, the better chance you have of finding the person without outside help. Your efforts to start the search process first can save time for you and money for your firm.

Try not to get discouraged as you search and wait. Keep your mind fixed on the various incentives that will come when you locate a missing person: financial re wards for your clients and your firm; legal and professional satisfaction for finding the people in time to meet case deadlines, depositions, and court hearings; and most importantly, additional job satisfaction for you.

However, according to the nature of the case, you may have to hire a private investigator. If trying things by yourself, phone directories and phone companies can help you out.

Missing Person Search Checklist

Here's a detailed checklist you can copy as one of your case file forms when you need to find your missing witnesses, defendants, and clients. Type the items on a page and put a line next to each one, so you can check it off as you complete it. Many investigators use a similar form themselves.
  • Current Phone Book Listing
  • City wide Telephone Directory Assistance
  • Statewide Directory Assistance
  • Call other witnesses/family members/workplaces
  • Property Search
  • County Property Tax Records
  • Deeds and Titles
  • DMV Records By Name
  • DMV Records By Vehicle
  • DMV Records By Boat/Other Vehicles
  • Out-of-State DMV Records Check
  • Credit History-Personal and Business
  • Social Security Number Check
  • Postal Check
  • Voter Registration
  • Civil Index-Superior and Municipal Courts
  • Federal Civil Index
  • City, State, and Federal Criminal Cases
  • Fictitious Business Names
  • City Business License
  • Special Licenses/Permits/Degrees
  • Secretary of State Incorporations
  • City Business Tax Liens
  • State Tax Liens
  • Federal Tax Liens
  • Birth/Marriage/Death Records
Most people, unless they are wanted fugitives, leave some trail behind them. To locate various witnesses, defendants, or forgetful clients, just use the resources at your disposal along with a little common sense.

Get authorization to make important decisions before you proceed. Keep time and deadline pressures, dollar figures, degrees of difficulty, and your firm's and client's spending limits in mind at all times. Do what you can on your own, then get the help of a licensed, qualified investigator after you’re exhausted the possibilities on your end.

Depositions, Dollars, and Due Diligence

Sometimes you want to find missing people, like clients, to give them money. Other times you may want to find and depose witnesses and other case participants to get critical information. And still other times you may want to find and serve defendants for the purposes of relieving them of their money. In each case, make sure you use the right piece of paper for the job. If you have to subpoena witnesses, tell them what to bring with them, when to appear, and how much, if anything, they will be paid for their time.

Lastly, if you or your investigator decides to throw in the towel and give up trying to find someone, make sure you document every effort to both locate and serve the person. Due diligence laws vary from state to state. If you fail to follow correct "sub-service" or service-by-publication requirements, you could run into many proof-of- service headaches later on.

Some states require at least three bona fide attempts to serve a person and three different types of records checks, i.e., voter registration rolls, DMV records, and a postal check, before you can serve by publication or any other similar legal method. Do what you can to find the person and then move on to other cases.

Rest assured that your attorneys don't expect you to become a PI nor should you want to be one if you're comfortable working as a paralegal. Do what you can from your desk and make a few trips to some governmental agencies for more help. Otherwise, stick to your own job and rely on skip trace and locate experts to do the legwork for you. This helps you avoid any conflicts of
interest, malpractice, or other legal or statutory violations.

Don't forget that when trying to find missing persons, luck and patience often play just as important a part as skill and experience.


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