By: Chassidy King
Today, we’re featuring a fun and candid post written by a new Guest Contributor named Chassidy. Several weeks ago, I found myself seated directly beside her at a monthly meeting held by the Indiana Paralegal Association. I didn’t know her. She didn’t know me. Clearly, neither of us missed a fabulous opportunity to network! Over a casual conversation and a plate of food, we managed to build a meaningful connection with that formerly unknown stranger dwelling alongside each of us (um, frosted, chocolate brownies always help to set the tone, in my humble opinion). I left that meeting with not only a sugar high, and extra motivation, but a new acquaintance who likes to write articles! Here’s her first.
Trials are serious business. They are stressful. Anyone who has been involved in one in any fashion knows this to be true. I have assisted with several trials in my 17 years in the legal field. For purposes of this article, I would like to focus on one that took place several years ago, out of state. I was asked to join the attorney for whom I worked to assist in a wrongful death trial.
My attorney indicated that the trial would last approximately 3 weeks and that it would be a great opportunity and experience for me. It is true – it was a great opportunity and experience for me. It was not true that the trial lasted 3 weeks. It was like Groundhog’s Day. Every day that plaintiff’s counsel went on after week three was more gruesome than the last. The trial spanned a total of 8 weeks. There was snow on the ground when we began and it was hot and 80-90 degrees when we finally left for good.
Our trial team consisted of lawyers, paralegals, and IT support from three different law firms as well as trial/jury consultants. The team from our firm was derived from two different offices.
Tip #1: No Task Assigned at Trial is Inconsequential to the Overall Success of the Team.
My official title at this firm was “Legal Secretary,” though I had the education and experience to work as a paralegal. Looking back, I am not entirely certain why he asked me to assist him at trial, except to be his personal assistant: doing his shopping, ordering and picking up dinner for the team of approximately 8-10 lawyers, preparing coffee at the courthouse for the trial team and clients, making sure our team had something to eat every day at lunch time; serving as liaison with the hotel staff, and various other menial tasks. None of those tasks are glamorous, but they all are necessary to preserving an attorney’s focus and energy on the trial.
My attorney needs freshly pressed suits. Therefore, trips to dry cleaners are in order. He needs shaving cream. Okay…no problem! I’m not above doing those things. Though, when I found myself without work, I decided to address my attorney by telling him that I can do more; that I could be an even more meaningful member of the team. He agreed and asked me to assist him by taking notes during witness preparation.
Tip #2: Never Assume You Know What Someone Else is Doing or Has Done.
Chances are, every member of the trial team is doing his or her personal best to get whatever needs doing done.
My very first evening (the Sunday before trial started), I entered our war room and was asked to bates label tens of thousands of pages of documents to be produced to the opposing side the next morning. I put stickers on documents until approximately midnight. At midnight, I drove an hour to the nearest 24 hour FedEx/Kinkos location to have copies made of the documents. The city we were in was very small and did not have a 24 hour reproduction center. (Even though it lacked a lot of the conveniences we were used to, it did have a certain charm about it.)
I returned to my hotel room, took a few hours rest, rose again at around 5:00 a.m., drove the hour back to the FedEx to pick up our copies – in my pajamas – only to learn that FedEx had not completed the job. The documents had to be produced. I did what any good legal support professional would do: I stood at a copier for the next two hours making copies – in my pajamas. Trial was to begin at 9:00 a.m. At around 7:30 a.m., I found that I had missed calls from the paralegal from our sister office asking where I was with the copies. When I tried to return those calls, they went unanswered, presumably because she was busy getting things ready for the first day.
Finally, after completing the copying, I made my way back to the hotel and was scolded by my firm’s IT person for not being “ready to go” to the court (remember, I was still in my pajamas and had not even showered yet). I explained the situation to her, but frankly, I believe my explanation fell on deaf ears. I understand though. To this day, I am not sure if anyone else on our team knows what happened that morning. I suspect they all think I was not taking the assignment seriously. I can assure you, my pajamas and I took the task deathly serious. This leads me to Tip #3.
Tip #3: Do Not Allow Negative Interactions to Bring You Down.
The paralegal who assigned the bates stamping and copying task was angry with me after this trial experience. I never had an opportunity to explain the situation to her. These things happen, at least on occasion if you stick around the legal field long enough. At some point in your career, you will find yourself standing (or sitting) across the room from an unhappy person. Do not allow that person’s negative energy to bring you down. If you make mistakes, own up to them. If you need to assume ownership over a project, own it. If there is something important worth explaining – explain it. But do not allow the negativity looming around another coworker to bring you down. Diffuse the situation as best as you can and move on.
Tip #4: Don’t be Afraid to Offer Assistance.
As mentioned in tip number 1, I was there to coordinate non-legal aspects of the trial. Everyone on our team was so busy that we were sleeping very few hours per night. When I noticed that folks were overwhelmed, I offered to assist them. I explained what kinds of tasks I felt comfortable taking on and I found that when people were able, they shared the load. There is plenty of work to go around and often not enough manpower. After speaking with my attorney and letting him know that I felt I could help out with more than just getting dinner, he asked me to help him prepare some of the witnesses for testimony. I am glad I offered to help and asked for more challenging work. I think he was glad too.
Tip #5: Don’t be Afraid to Share Your Thoughts About the Day’s Testimony.
As a non-attorney, the things you pick up on may be equally or more helpful to the case than those that the attorneys see and hear. As legal support people, we are still laymen. We are, figuratively, the peers in the box that determine the end result of the trial. During our trial, after a day of direct examination of the plaintiff (the other side), I noticed something that was inconsistent in her testimony and brought it to the attention of the attorney preparing for cross-examination. She thanked me and used my suggestion. It was thrilling to me that she invited me to be on her team anytime.
Tip #6: What Happens at Trial Stays at Trial. (The only way this phrase could be better is if it read “What happens at trial in Vegas, stays at trial in Vegas.” Sadly, we were a long way from Vegas!)
Too much of everything (except sleep) is happening at trial. Too much working, eating, drinking, smoking, cussing, stressing, bickering, drama, flirting, and about every other possible thing you can imagine. When at trial, people around you will sometimes take a step (or ten) far outside the professional norm. You will see some crazy things. You may observe someone on your vast trial team living on the larger side of life, as he/she walks the halls of a hotel with a beer can in hand or the bottom of her shirt pulled up through the neck. You know: the make-shift midriff shirt and one too many beers. Not. A. Pretty. Sight.
You may see an attorney incredibly frustrated, in a state of near rage over an unexpected issue, or in a panic to avert a legal ambush in that hotel war room. Information about behavior like that stays at trial. It does absolutely no good to bring that home with you. Repeat after me – What happens at trial stays at trial. Need I say more? All those things you cannot unsee, unhear or unthink never happened, even if you weren’t in Vegas.
Tip #7: No One Leaves the Trial Experience Unscathed.
Our team lost. After six and a half weeks of Plaintiff’s counsel presenting its case-in-chief, our team felt it was better and more considerate of the jurors’ time for us to make our points succinctly and concisely. We put our case-in-chief on for one and a half weeks. Sure, we could have languished in the courtroom for another 3 weeks. Would it have made a difference? The world will never know. Our trial team will never know. Each individual person on the team left that tiny little city that day with varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I have grown professionally during every trial I have experienced. But during those two months of trial, I grew exponentially, both personally and professionally. I changed and for that, I am thankful.
I wish you the best of luck on your next (or first) adventure through the courthouse trenches!
Chassidy King is a Paralegal at the law firm of Plews Shadley Racher & Braun in Indianapolis, Indiana where she focuses on environmental litigation and insurance coverage matters. She is also leading her firm in litigation technology initiatives.
TODAY’S TIP FROM THE TPS DOG – Layla the Great:
The next time you throw a button-down dress shirt into the washer, fasten the second button from the top prior to tossing it in, and it will hold its shape and come out of the unforgiving dryer far more manageable. If you’re lucky — you may not even have to iron it! Score one for the smart paralegals! Don’t believe me? Give it a whirl. (After all, I am the fearless TPS mascot).
Lastly, we couldn’t part ways without sharing a quote:
“Money cannot buy happiness but it’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes than on a bicycle.” ~ Unknown
Now go charge into that extra long weekend, paralegals! Make it fabulous. Eat, drink, socialize. Bask in the impending freedom. Behold the all-too-occasional silence that surrounds you, and take celebratory notice of the fact that there are absolutely no esquires in sight! Paradise awaits.
We expect to see you back on Monday, whether it’s in a Mercedes or on a bike…
Until then, bask in it.