Working as a Paralegal on Appellate Cases

David Camm came home to a horrific scene at his Georgetown, Indiana home on the night of September 28, 2000. After an evening of shooting hoops at his church, the former state trooper pulled into his driveway to the horrific site of his wife’s body slumped in their garage next to the couple’s car.

She had been shot to death.

It got even worse when Camm looked into the car itself: his two children, aged 7 and 5, had also been shot. Frantically, Camm attempted to revive the 7-year-old while calling 911, but it was too late.

Suspicion in the murders immediately fell on Camm himself. He had engaged in numerous extramarital affairs, and his wife’s blood was found on his shirt—an expert witness testified that the spatters looked like what you would find if you’d shot someone at close range.

A nauseated jury quickly found Camm guilty and he was sentenced to 195 years in prison.

But Camm maintained his innocence, and his lawyers appealed the decision. In 2004, the Indiana court of appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a retrial. In their view, the introduction of the extramarital affairs had been prejudicial to the case.

New evidence had turned up a second suspect, previously unidentified, but it wasn’t enough—the prosecution now told a tale of child abuse and conspiracy, and Camm was convicted a second time, again for life in prison.

But the appeals court was unhappy again—the abuse claims were insufficiently substantiated and, once again, overly prejudicial. In 2013, Camm went back for a marathon third trial… and this time was acquitted, having served 13 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

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This is only one example of the function of the appeals process in the American court system, a vital check on prosecutorial power that ensures that any person convicted of a crime may have the case reviewed for errors by a panel of judges that haven’t been involved in the case.

Paralegals play an important part in the appellate process in American courts. Appeals are all about picking through the details of cases, finding threads of errors or misinterpretations in the original trial to pull on—tasks well-suited to the eagle-eyed, detail-oriented approach paralegals are known for.

Paralegals Review The Work of Lawyers and Judges in Appellate Cases

An appeal is the formal process of requesting a change in a court decision. The basis for appeal is generally either a procedural error made in the trail court or an alternative interpretation of how the law reads.

The appeals process is all about reviewing how the judge or jury in the initial trial interpreted the law or to dispute procedural decisions the judge may have been made incorrectly and that may have influenced the outcome of the trial.

Both criminal and civil trials can be appealed, with one crucial difference: a prosecutor is not allowed to appeal a not guilty verdict. Double jeopardy, the possibility of being tried twice for the same crime, is outlawed in the United States under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. This is true even if there has been an egregious and obvious error in making the decision. The only exceptions are cases that are dismissed at the request of the defense or where mistrials are declared (since no verdict has been rendered).

Appellate work is particularly difficult because the case has already been lost once; the burden of overturning a lower court decision requires that paralegals and attorneys produce ironclad arguments backed up by solid legal reasoning and precedent.

Because appellate cases hang on details, it is beyond important that no new flaws are introduced, whether we’re talking missed deadlines or improperly prepared documents. Appellate paralegals have to be absolutely certain about court process and procedure for the venues they work in. Their attention to detail when both reviewing and preparing documents that will be submitted must be letter-perfect.

Like other paralegal positions, paralegals in appellate cases become managers of case files on appeals. They also are responsible for:

  • Building library and reference documents for court rules and administrative information.
  • Handling most correspondence with the court or opposing counsel.
  • Drafting appeal notices and the facts of the appeal summary.
  • Summarizing precedent from similar cases into briefs for attorneys and judges.
  • Preparing citations for those cases for the brief.

Research and Reasoning Drive Appellate Cases

Although cases that go to appeal are the same cases that are initially tried in court, the work of an appellate paralegal is quite different from what they might do when a case is first litigated. Research is the keystone behind a successful appeal.

Appellate attorneys and paralegals begin their process by reviewing trial records and case law. Paralegals, with their detail-oriented approach to analyzing facts and documents, may do the lion’s share of this work to lay the groundwork for the appeal. Using their expert knowledge of court procedure and precedent, they will look for gaps or flaws in the original trial that are susceptible to attack with legal reasoning or citations from other cases that were decided differently.

Appellate paralegals, then, spend enormous amounts of time conducting research. Using LexisNexis and other legal databases, they are likely to comb through hundreds of similar cases looking for decisions or arguments that support overturning the verdict.

Appellate Work Differs Greatly From Trial Work

When a case is appealed, it is not re-tried. Witnesses are not subsequently called, new evidence is not commonly presented, and there is no extensive pre-trial discovery process to go through. There is less human contact for paralegals in this role and more paperwork.

In some ways, appellate work is more purely legal work than trial cases. Paralegals work with a case that has already been built and assess it as it happened. They do not need to help take depositions or draft responses to requests from the other side.

Some of the most exclusive and elite appellate work is in the court that is the final arbiter of all American law: the Supreme Court. There are some law firms that have both experience and a reputation for handling arguments in front of the nation’s highest court. Working as a paralegal in those practices is to work at the pinnacle of the profession.

Finding Your Niche as an Appellate Paralegal

It’s rare for firms to specialize in appellate work and even large firms rarely have practices that only handle appeals. So as a paralegal working on appellate cases, you’ll probably end up wearing more than one hat.

This also means that you do not have to have any special qualifications for appellate work, however. Experience is not usually required and you may work your way into such a role gradually through other litigation work.

Because of this, a certificate in litigation practice may be helpful for getting into appellate work. All three major paralegal certification organizations offer certificates in various types of litigation practice:

Of the three, only NALS offers a specialty certificate dedicated to appellate law.

Interested in working in appellate law? Find an ABA accredited paralegal program.