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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Good People to Know: Your Friendly Process Server

Back in rural Alabama, when we served a summons and complaint, or a subpoena, or any other document that warranted service, we used the Sheriff's department. It was a one-step process: take the document to the courthouse (or e-file it), and let it go. The return on service would usually take around a week... if we were lucky.

I have since learned that private process servers are much more time efficient and focused on service of your specific documents to your specific defendant, deponent, or custodian of records. Within my first week at my Memphis job, I was introduced to the world of private process servers. The new system involves a couple more steps, but it takes much less time.

Step one: Send subpoena to court to be file-stamped and issued. Ask runner to return file-stamped issued subpoena to me for service.
Step two: Call private process server to come pick up subpoena for service.
Step three: Wait for return on service. The great thing about a private process server is that he or she will likely try more than once to perfect service, and if the address you gave is inadequate, will often put in some time finding a better one. He then usually takes the subpoena back to the court to be filed. 

Every once in awhile, I am asked to issue a subpoena in another state, or several hours away from this county. In these cases, I realize how convenient it is to know local process servers.

I once had to arrange for issuance and service of a subpoena in a rural part of the great state of Texas. In this little town in the middle of absolutely nowhere, I looked for hours for a process server. I finally found someone to help us with service, but he was located nearly two hours away. Because we were in a hurry to perfect service, I overnighted the subpoena to the local court in Texas, then arranged to have the process server drive in from two hours away to pick it up at the clerk's office and serve it.

I did not know the Texas process server I used, but now I do. Just in case, you know, we ever have to issue a subpoena in Middle Of Nowhere, Texas again.

Many private process servers also include other services, such as copying and imaging, or private investigations. So knowing you local process servers could mean knowing your local PI and document imaging business. Because of the nature of the business, many of them also have various connections in your town or city that could prove useful in the future.

If you currently use the Sheriff's office as your main server of process, I would suggest considering a private server. They can be more expensive, but you may find that the added cost is worth the added benefit. At the very least, get to know a local process server, whether you believe you will use him for service or not. You never know when his connections, knowledge, or related skill set will come in handy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Living Vicariously Through More Experienced Colleagues

In my first couple of years, I often wondered why so many paralegals and legal secretaries worry so much about the "cya" rule. Perhaps I have not been in the business long enough to develop the paranoia that comes with working for people in high-stress positions who might be tempted to blame the "little guy" when things go wrong. The longer I work in this field, though, the more stories I hear about assistants being thrown under the proverbial bus.

It makes sense. Blaming the assistant is the easy thing to do. Attorney saves face, and Assistant is none the wiser. I have been lucky enough in my nearly three years of paralegaling to have avoided attorney supervisors who would fall into such easy temptation. (You may remember stories of the Boss in which he rose to my defense with foul-mouthed clients and the like. The Boss always had my back the same way I had his... ah, the good ol' days of solidarity and teamwork in the rural law office.)

But part of my career education involves learning how to cover my back side, especially when working in the bigger legal world with more than a handful of attorneys. It is not that any one of my lawyers would purposefully slander me or unreasonably grow angry, but rather that in a busy mid-size law firm, as assignments get passed up and down and back and forth, figuring out where a mistake was made or a deadline missed is much trickier. When so many hands are touching any one case, five fingers per hand add up quickly. You better bet some of those will be used for pointing.

Today I was lucky enough to receive some good advice from a secretary who has been in the legal business since before I was born. The advice was simple: cover yourself. Get into the habit of documenting everything. Not just to yourself, but to the file itself. Did you arrange for a court reporter? Take a few moments to tell the file what you did, when you did it, and who your contact is. If the file knows, everyone working on the file knows, too. This way, if the court reporter fails to show up, you can at least point to the Monday three weeks ago when you arranged for the deposition. Or if opposing counsel swears the settlement figure she gave you to pass to your attorney had one less zero, you know where you find your conversation.

The secretary today was speaking from hard won experience as she suggested I document my work. While I have always made date-stamped notes to myself in Outlook tasks and calendar, it never occurred to me how important it might be to have those notes date-stamped in the file for everyone to see. Thankfully, I did not have to learn this lesson through the harsh reality of personal experience. While I have never been falsely accused of botching an assignment yet (and hopefully never will be), this secretary may have very well saved Future Me from that embarrassment.

Of course, a practical, less self-serving reason to write memos to the file is to remind oneself of important landmarks in the case while making sure that anyone else on the case, even a newly assigned colleague, can easily figure out which stage it is in.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Choice of Habit

I was such a sheltered little paralegal in my old world. I know I have covered all the aspects of my former life - close client contact, assignments that included dense substantive work - and how all that has changed with my new job. I believed until recently that most experienced attorneys and other legal professionals knew of all the ways non-lawyer assistants and paralegals can be utilized. I assumed that if my attorneys were not using me in many of those ways, it was simply because they chose not to. And that is okay. As a member of the legal team, I am happy to be utilized to benefit the team as the leader sees fit (although just like any team member, sometimes I think my skills might be better used in different ways). It had occurred to me only fleetingly that some, nay, many attorneys might not know how to use these functional accessories called paralegals. But I brushed that thought aside for some reason.

However, since moving into a legal world that gives me much more face-time with a greater universe of lawyers and legal professionals, I have learned that perhaps under-utilization is not a choice. Perhaps it is sometimes a habit born of confusion and mystery.

Not once but three times in the past three months, I have been involved in conversations with different attorneys about the ways they use their paralegals and the ways they see other paralegals being used. One lawyer seemed confused at the idea of a paralegal signing her name to a letter transmitting pleadings to the other side ("Please find enclosed..."). Another considered the drafting of pleadings to be one of the attorney-only facets of the practice of law. Still another did not like receiving lawyer-transmitted information through the opposing counsel's paralegal ("Since we did not hear from you after calling and writing you several times, we had to go ahead and tentatively schedule the deposition before the discovery time limit ran out. Here is the date.").

Thankfully, in each of these conversations, the attorney seemed relieved to find out that he could actually choose to use his paralegal to ease the burden of some of these tasks. Of course, old habits die hard, and once someone gets used to practicing a certain way, that way may be the way. For instance, I know of partners who refuse to allow anyone but attorneys even organize their files. And I know of lawyers who will always prefer that any communication to any party or counsel comes directly through their pen. My hope is that these preferences are choices made after careful consideration of how to achieve the best results for the client in the most efficient way, rather than a self-inflicted routine caused by a lack of understanding of how to use other legal professionals.

Nevertheless, when I received an assignment to draft a complaint this week, I could not help but smile. I am happy to have been able to take something substantive and time-consuming off of one of my attorneys' desks, freeing him up for more complex tasks.

This was the result of good communication among legal team members, of course. In one five-minute conversation regarding the many uses of paralegals, I was able to help one lawyer become more efficient and profit-oriented, while at the same time ensuring interesting substantive work for myself. That's what I call a win-win situation.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I'm back. For any of you who still check from time to time, I have returned from my month-long hiatus. It was full of long writing assignments and contemplation over how to proceed with this blog. For obvious reasons - the bigger firm, attorney supervisors I am still getting to know, new and unfamiliar clients - I can no longer poke easy fun at the Boss (or any boss), and I must be careful about how my intended tone is perceived by others. This requires a bit of a change on my part, and the best changes are rarely easy.

All that aside, now that my assignments are complete and I have thought long and hard about the direction of this little blog, stay tuned for regular postings from Paralegalese.