In a steamy, packed courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925, two of the most famous litigators in American history squared off over what was presumed to be the landmark 1st Amendment Case of the century. A local high school teacher named John Scopes had been caught teaching the theory of evolution in his biology class; state law forbade such blatant contradiction of the Biblical creation story.
Williams Jenning Bryan, one-time Secretary of State, three-time presidential candidate, and long-serving representative for the state of Nebraska, joined the prosecution…
…Famed defense lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union Clarence Darrow took up Scopes’ defense…
The debate between the two was an epic contest of famous orators that would become known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.
This trial had it all, dealing with the authority of state law going head to head with the 1st Amendment, not to mention the implications of how church would be separated from state in practical matters like public education during a time when the nation was starting to outgrow its puritanical roots. The precedent this trial set is still taught in history classes today.
But even now, not a lot of people outside the legal profession realize that the verdict was actually dismissed on a technicality: the fine required on conviction would be for $100; at the time, $50 was the maximum that could be imposed.
The trial was thrown out and the actual trial determining that evolution could be taught in American schools wouldn’t be decided for another 40 years, bringing the controversy to Arkansas in 1968.
Bryan, it turned out, could have used an astute paralegal on his team. Masters of such procedural and statutory intricacies, litigation paralegals routinely save cases from such blunders.
Paralegals Take The Stage in Trial Cases
Today, litigation paralegals are the rockstars of the paralegal world. High-stakes trials are determined by details and a comprehensive knowledge of the law and precedent. Lawyers trying these cases demand some of the very best trained paralegals in the field.
Litigation paralegals must be highly organized and pay close attention to details. It is often their job to ensure that all necessary documentation for a trial is obtained and organized, all necessary court documents are prepared and filed, and all exhibits are prepared and available at trial. Performing these job duties often takes coordinating a team of people and liaising with both internal departments and external organizations.
Hitting all these marks mean that litigation paralegals must have excellent communication and organizational skills.
Increasingly, litigation paralegals also have to be comfortable with information technology. Not only are most references becoming computerized, but electronic document management and scheduling software, such as Summation and CompuLaw, are becoming de rigeur for managing complex cases with hundreds of critical dates and thousands of documents.
Paralegals Lead the Way in Investigation and Discovery
One of the most interesting parts of the job comes before the trial even starts. Paralegals are a key part of investigative efforts made to uncover the facts of the case before determining a trial strategy. They may conduct most of the interviews with their client, and in fact the rapport they establish early on can lead to their being the primary client contact throughout the case.
The process continues through the discovery phase, when volleys of paperwork fly between the litigants, each demanding the other produce information and evidence important to their case.
This can involve a lot of research and sifting through documents, or interviewing and deposing witnesses. Occasionally, paralegals will coordinate with private investigators to uncover particularly hard to find evidence or witnesses.
With the facts in hand, paralegals are also expected to help draft pleadings, both for the court and aimed at the other side. A flare for writing and an ability to quickly conduct legal research with resources such as LexisNexis and the Law Library of Congress are helpful.
This also carries over into preparation for the trial itself. Paralegals may be responsible for assembling information into a format that allows lawyers to quickly reference it during trial, and also into exhibits that can be shown to judge and jury. Paralegals assemble documents such as:
- Chronologies of key events
- Catalogs of evidence
- Specific legal citation references
- Videos, posters, and other visual aids
Paralegals Keep Cases on the Rails
If lawyers handle the big picture of taking a case to trial, it’s down to the paralegals to track and tidy up all the messy little details that can completely derail major litigation.
At the trial itself, while the lawyers argue the case, paralegals continue to serve as a valuable organizing force. At one step removed from the verbal back and forth, they can observe and make suggestions, or closely track the responses by judge and jury to certain lines of argument.
Throughout every phase, litigation paralegals must keep track of the volumes of paperwork involved and the calendar and deadlines that must be met. Judges do not take kindly to lawyers who ruin trial schedules. Paralegals, despite being junior members of the team, help keep the entire effort on track and hound their attorneys to get work in on time for filings and other important dates.
Most cases, of course, never go to trial. But paralegals play a key role in settlement negotiations, also, often laying much of the groundwork for agreements in discussion with their opposite numbers on the other side of the case.
And in cases that do go to trial, appeals are almost always in the cards. Here, too, litigation paralegals fill critical roles by:
- Identifying legal issues for appeal
- Maintaining documents from the trial that will be required on appeal
- Researching, writing, and filing appellate documents
Becoming a Litigation Paralegal
Experience is usually the key factor in hiring paralegals in litigation firms, but having a solid education is nothing to sneeze at. The American Institute for Paralegal Studies (AIPS) offers a 12-month litigation specialty certificate for paralegals, covering subjects such as:
- American jurisprudence
- Family law
- Criminal law
- Ethics and personal responsibility
The course also offers a Lexis research workshop, reflecting the supreme importance of online research skills to the modern litigation paralegal.
It’s common to specialize, just as lawyers do. Litigation paralegals might work primarily on the plaintiff or defense sides of the case. Depending on the type of firm, they might find themselves specializing even further… there are litigation paralegals who only work on commercial or insurance cases, for example. Although specializing takes some of the variety out of the types of cases litigation paralegals work, the benefit is that they gain priceless and in-depth familiarity with a particular body of law. That’s knowledge that can pay dividends for both lawyers and clients.
But specialization doesn’t have to mean boredom. Litigation is often exciting work—every trial is different.