The first thing to be said for the litigation process and the paralegal's role
in it is that it is varied. It is stimulating to move from one subject matter to another, or to work with documents that may range from deeds of trust to mechanic's liens to wills to scribbles on a paper napkin to diaries, calendars, and love letters. It is the litigation paralegal who often gets first plugged in to database management and has to use one or two of several software programs (DBase IV, Paradox, Q&A, Lotus, and many others).
If you have no experience with any of the preceding software programs or others like them, be enthusiastic about the prospect of learning them when you become employed. Even better, figure out a way to get trained on these programs so that you can include them on your resume. The entry-level paralegal who can boast
of this kind of experience has an advantage over other job candidates.
Several years ago, I was asked to begin performing data entry on a mechanic's lien case that had just been filed near Vail, Colorado. Two years and 75 defendants later, a small building was rented to house all of the documents that were generated in this suit. Inquisitive enthusiasm kept me on the case. By time of trial, I had become the "fact expert" on the failed multimillion dollar complex construction project. The use of computers had not reached the height of sophistication that it has today, but in that case (as in all cases), I started with a willingness to use the computer to my advantage, even if my "computer literacy" was not too high. Document imaging and other high-tech approaches to document management may be in store for us in the near future, but no matter what happens in litigation, there will always be a need for a talented, skilled, and enthusiastic litigation paralegal who is willing to become friendly with and talented in document management.
In cases that involve thousands or even hundreds of thousands of documents, whole teams can be involved. Some cases require only a few boxes of documents, while some class action suits have documents housed in warehouses and buildings, coded and labeled by floor, section, row, and box. In these latter cases, trained paralegals may be doing:
- document labeling
- document coding
- data entry
- quality control (checking others' work)
- document organization and indexing
- liaison with computer consultants and attorneys
- report production
- personnel supervision and team leading
- document reproduction
As a litigation paralegal, you may work in certain practice areas or firms that never require this kind of massive organizational effort, but the real point here is that the litigation paralegal is in charge of document retrieval, no matter how small the case. Some cases may only have 20 to 30 documents, but if the files are poorly organized and discovery is handled haphazardly, even those documents can become a problem for a paralegal.
You will be held responsible for the state of the documents involved in a litigated matter. If you are not given responsibility over the files, try to get that responsibility. A secretary who is managing the files may be happy to allow you take over that aspect of his or her job. If they view it as a treasured area of responsibility, ask if you can involve yourself in the indexing and labeling.
If you will be held responsible for it, try to take control of it.
The Law of Document Blindness: When an attorney is standing at the door - red-faced, perspiring, with a strained countenance and a raspy voice-pleading for a certain key document, the optic nerve of the paralegal will become blind to the particular document requested, especially if that document is not in its proper place in the file because it is in the paralegal's right hand.
The Law of Document Blindness is an exaggeration of the state of affairs in a busy law office. Still, it is the litigation paralegal's absolute job requirement numero uno to not only label and index documents (or be responsible for this) but to be able to retrieve them quickly.
Cultivating personal and professional viability
With the modern law firm and the nature of workflow being what they are, it behooves the working paralegal to have as broad an experience as possible while still maintaining an area of strength. Being able to say you have a strength or specialty is very important, but it is also helpful to be able to say you have had exposure to two or three other practice areas. Job leads are often accompanied with statements like: "I want a two-year paralegal with any kind of law office experience, and whatever Workers' Comp or personal injury experience they can muster up."
So as you proceed through this article, remember that if you fall in love with one practice area, you still have to be a useful member of a firm. Educate yourself, ask questions, and test out different job descriptions
to see if they match your personality profile and work style. At the same time, stay flexible, be informed, and be ready to roll up your sleeves and handle tasks no matter what the practice area.
Make memos a habit
An organized paralegal will draft a memo once a month just to verify and confirm dates. When is a supreme issue in the law. Recording when, and knowing when changes, and recording and knowing the new when, all fall to the paralegal. Certainly, attorneys are endlessly concerned about when, but this is an area in which you as a paralegal can shine. In litigation, "when" is as important as "what." From statutes of limitation to filing appeals, "when" is always entwined in the storyline, and you as a paralegal are in the middle of the whole scheme.
As the file grows and the case proceeds, write, send, and file status reports on a regular basis. You will keep yourself up on the case as dates, times, and issues arise. Status reports will keep you continually aware that "the wheels of Justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine." The pace of the law is like an ax grinding grain on a stone. When things are quiet, it can be downright dull. But when a deadline arrives, you must be the one ringing the bell.
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