For much of the American public, the entire legal industry is viewed through the prism of the ads they see on TV, billboards and on the sides of buses, screaming for their attention: ‘Been in a car accident recently?’ … ‘Bought a lemon?’… ‘Hurt on the job?’ … ‘Been exposed to asbestos?’
And, of course, there’s always a number to call for a free consultation. That number rings in the office of a local personal injury lawyer, one of the most common types of legal councel, and one of the most active in the civil courts.
But beyond corny ads on daytime TV and a bad reputation for chasing ambulances, personal injury firms serve a vital role in modern society: they provide legal representation in civil cases and class action law suites for the redress of physical, emotional or monetary injuries.
Paralegals working in personal injury law help people whose lives have been disrupted by some individual or business ‘through no fault of their own’, as the ads often state.
Major class action suits in which hundreds or even thousands of people seek restitution for illness or injury caused by negligence or recklessness represent the mother of all personal injury suits. For example, the class action suit against Pacific Gas and Electric made infamous in the movie Erin Brockovich was a personal injury suit in the same way a case dealing with a simple slip and fall in a grocery store isle would be.
And personal injury cases have resulted in major social changes as a result of expensive judgments over the years…
- Defective automobile recalls
- Improved workplace safety regulations
- Recall and removal of dangerous products
- Improved food safety standards
Personal injury paralegals are people on a mission to improve the world, one case at a time.
How Paralegals Find and Manage Personal Injury Cases
Personal injury work is a great fit for paralegals that enjoy the action of active court cases. They’re not caught up in the tedium that comes with drawing up contracts or revising regulations for some company—they actively work to find, develop, and help try personal injury cases.
Personal injury cases are all considered tort cases and are heard and tried in civil courts. Because the standards of evidence and culpability are different than in criminal court, paralegals working in personal injury have to adjust their approach to gathering evidence and formulating a theory of the case.
There are four key components to any personal injury claim:
- There must be a duty to act reasonably in the circumstances
- Someone must have breached that duty
- That party’s breach must have caused harm
- The harm must have a monetary value
Although personal injury cases do not necessarily have to involve a physical injury, many of them do, and paralegals in the field have to be well-versed in reading and evaluating medical records and reports. They may also be responsible for lining up and preparing expert witnesses to testify to medical issues the client has suffered. Having at least a basic knowledge of healthcare will give you a solid leg up as a personal injury paralegal.
Paralegals in this area of law almost all work for law firms that specialize in such cases. Because many of the legal issues are local, personal injury firms tend to be small; the largest may cover a state or region, but there are no large, multinational personal injury law firms like there are in other areas of law. This and other factors can allow paralegals to have a real impact on each case they handle, not to mention a lot more responsibilities than they might find in other roles.
Most personal injury cases do not go to trial at all, however. Settlements are the primary way that cases are resolved. Paralegals can be involved at all levels of negotiations during the settlement process.
Firms Only Take Cases They Can Win, and Paralegals Do the Screening
Paralegals play a key role in screening potential clients and cases for personal injury firms. The business model of personal injury lawyers usually is based on contingency fees: they only get paid if they win. Clients often cannot afford their fees without a judgment in their favor, so lawyers know their survival depends on picking cases they can win.
The paralegals at personal injury firms will usually be the first to meet with potential clients and take down the facts of the case. They have to be able to ask difficult, often uncomfortable questions calmly and without making the client defensive. They also have to become adept lie-detectors, to sniff out cases that sound too good to be true.
At the same time, the paralegal has to be compassionate. No client comes into a personal injury firm unless something has gone wrong in their life. They may be suffering from injuries or loss and their mental state is likely to be fragile. Although the case is just business to the law firm, it is part of the client’s life. The ability to be understanding and probing at the same time is a skill that isn’t easily taught, but is invaluable to paralegals involved in personal injury work.
The records they make of these meetings will form the basis of a case file if the firm’s attorneys decide to take on the case. The paralegal will usually make a recommendation based on their own judgement and legal expertise. Whether or not the firm takes the case ultimately hinges on the nature of the facts the paralegal gathers in the context of how the law reads.
Paralegals also have to be aware of statutes of limitations, which restrict the period of time during which plaintiffs can seek redress under certain laws. If too much time has passed, the court could simply reject the case.
Another factor that paralegals must discuss with potential clients and get to the bottom of is whether or not a judgment could be collected even if the case was decided in their favor. Experienced paralegals understand that Pyrrhic victories don’t pay the bills. A solid case against a bankrupt defendant isn’t worth taking to court.
Assisting Before and During Trial
Organization is a key skill for paralegals in every specialty but it holds a special place in personal injury cases. Time is money in personal injury cases and attorneys at these firms juggle dozens of clients at once. Paralegals have to coordinate all of the various deadlines and filing requirements to ensure that none of the attorneys involved are scheduled to be in two courtrooms at the same time. Judges do not look favorably on litigants who blow deadlines regularly or fail to provide promised briefs or evidence.
Because the lawyers at personal injury firms are extraordinarily busy, an inordinate amount of the drafting and review of legal documents will fall to paralegals. Paralegals may also be placed in charge of witness preparation and coaching, the preparation of any exhibits that will be shown in court, and drafting opening statements for the attorney.
Paralegals may take on or help with any number of tasks at trial, including:
- Providing assistance during voir dire, helping the attorney evaluate and reject potential jurors
- Keeping exhibits and reference materials organized and getting them to the attorney when needed
- Managing client communication while the attorney argues the case
- Assisting with trial strategy adjustments as the case is argued
It’s vital to know and understand the trial rules for the court the case will be argued in, as well as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence.
Personal injury law is unlike many other aspects of legal work in that it is less statutory than precedent-based. Although there are often underlying statutes that will apply, the fact that each case is unique has lead to an enormous amount of case law being generated over the years from actual decisions, some reaching far back into English common law. Paralegals have to be masters of researching these cases and providing attorneys with references to relevant case law to support the arguments they make during trial.
Even though trials are relatively rare, most personal injury paralegals will see more than their share of the inside of a courtroom. The work is action-packed and the stories are always interesting. If you have the energy and intelligence, becoming a personal injury paralegal can be a rewarding career.
Becoming a Personal Injury Paralegal
Getting a job working as a paralegal in personal injury firms is no major challenge; PI work is ubiquitous in the United States and no special qualifications are necessary to get started beyond simply having a degree or certification as a trained paralegal.
Once you have obtained your degree, however, there are a number of advanced certifications you may choose to pursue in order to boost your stature and become qualified for more challenging PI roles.
These are offered by the three major paralegal certification agencies:
- NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants, offers a core Personal Injury certification course and additional specialized certificates in 8 practice areas
- Automobile Accidents
- Entity Medical Liability
- Individual Medical Liability
- Intentional Torts
- Premises Liability
- Product Liability
- Worker’s Compensation
- Wrongful Death
- NFPA, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, offers a speciality certification in litigation and alternative dispute resolution
- NALS, the association for legal professionals, offers certification in both personal injury law and civil litigation