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Barbara L. Liss

By: Barbara L. Liss (Guest Blogger)

In the past, I often compared civil litigation paralegal trial work to being the stage manager of a play – the responsibilities seem very similar. But the more I deliberate on the subject, the more it occurs to me that this analogy is imperfect. It describes the relationship of a paralegal to the case, the client and the assignments, but it fails to fully address the core of the relationship between the paralegal and the lawyer by whom he or she is employed.

The times I have felt most satisfied, fulfilled and joyful in performing my duties as a paralegal have been those when I’ve felt a connection to my primarily responsible attorney. Exploring and examining this connection, I realize that I’m happiest when I take on the role of the sidekick. It is this relationship which permits me to feel recognized for the contributions I make and gives me connection in an acceptable way to the people with whom I closely work.

And the word that immediately precedes “sidekick” is “faithful,” of course! At the bottom of my best paralegal/lawyer relationships has been the knowledge that the attorney could count on me through thick and thin. In exchange, the lawyer has to exhibit qualities making him or her worthy of this loyalty: he must be ethical, she must be intellectual and articulate; he must be heroic!

Through the course of my career, when some in whom I vested my faith failed to live up to my expectations, it was disappointing in the extreme – and now I much more fully comprehend why that was so. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, the term “sidekick” was pickpocket slang for the front pocket in a coat or a pair of pants. Some unknown poet of the underworld must have made the connection between the front pocket–the hardest to pick–and an inseparable companion.

The history of sidekicks finds its root, like many stories do, in mythology and religion. One of the earliest recorded sidekicks may be Enkidu, who adopted a sidekick role to Gilgamesh after they became allies in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Other early examples include Achilles and Patroclus from the Iliad, and Moses and Aaron from the Bible.

When Moses went to Pharaoh, he brought his brother Aaron along.  Moses complained often of being slow of speech and tongue, so when the time came to prove to Pharaoh whose God was the stronger, Moses had Aaron acting as his mouth, his hands and his go-between.  In this function, Aaron may have well qualified as the world’s first recorded sidekick.  He was, as many sidekicks to follow, someone who filled in the shortcomings of his superior.  (A trait good paralegals often exhibit.)

The sidekick in literature evolved into a separate being who didn’t need the direction of the hero to take action.  In Greek mythology, Heracles, in order to gain forgiveness of past crimes, was bid to perform several feats.  One of these feats was to kill the hydra.  The only problem for Heracles, who had the gift of brute strength but not of any apparent great wisdom, was whenever he chopped one of the hydras heads, two more would appear in its place.  Fortunately for Heracles, he had brought along Iolaus, his nephew, who seeing the difficulty multiplying by his uncle’s actions, decided to take action.  Iolaus took a torch and each time Heracles would chop off a head of the hydra, Iolaus would burn the end, so that no others could grow.  (Paralegals often demonstrate independent thinking.)

In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sancho Panza not only reminds Quixote of reality, even while he will not listen, but he continued to serve him and give him some small attachment to the real world.  Sidekicks like Sancho, Robin in Batman and Tonto in the Lone Ranger served as the ears and eyes — someone who was dependable, less abrasive and more apt to melt into society without being noticed as well as someone who could perform the more menial tasks that were beneath doing by the hero.  (Sound familiar to anyone?)

In stories, film and comics, sidekicks provide one or multiple functions, such as a counterpoint to the hero, an alternate point of view, or knowledge, skills, or anything else the hero does not have. They sometimes function as comic relief, or as straight man to the hero’s comedic actions. A sidekick can also act as someone more relatable to the audience [can you say “jury”?] than the hero, or whom the audience can imagine themselves as being (such as teen sidekicks).

Although Sherlock Holmes was a difficult man to know, his friendship with Dr. Watson convinces the reader that Holmes is a good person.   In this same way, working with witnesses, clients and jurors, paralegals make the attorneys seem more approachable and the case more relatable.

It is also not unusual, especially in more recent TV programs such as Bones and NCIS, for there to be a team of sidekicks. In Bones, for example, FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth often fulfills one of the traditional roles of a sidekick by providing translations for the brilliant but socially-incapable Dr. Temperance Brennan. Both Brennan and Booth, however, are heroes in their own right. The sidekicks in this case are the team of “squints” back in the Jeffersonian Institution’s medico-legal lab, each with their own scientific specialty, all of whom are usually needed to break the case.  Similarly, in complex litigation, a team of paralegal sidekicks having various and different skills and specializations is commonly found.

The sidekick’s main qualities include loyalty, tenacity and unselfishness in times of trouble – these can accurately be used to describe paralegals as well.  The underlying definition of a sidekick is to be a helping hand; also the main function and purpose of a paralegal. Just as our favorite sidekicks are there to bail the “main man” out of trouble, provide a sounding board and a word of encouragement when things get tough, paralegals answer the same call. 

Calling the Lone Ranger “Kemo Sabe,” Tonto referred to him as “faithful friend,” which is precisely what Tonto was to him. 

In putting this article together, I thought of some sidekicks whose qualities I believe paralegals emulate. Who would you add?

Barney Rubble
Ed Norton
John Watson
Doctor Spock
Barney Fife
Chewbacca
Shrek’s Donkey
Ed McMahon
Batman’s Robin
Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza
Smiley Burnette (Gene Autry)
Pat Brady, Gabby Hayes, Andy Devine (Roy Rogers)
Thelma and Louise
Lassie
Renfield
Igor

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Barbara L. Liss is an Estate Planning, Trust Administration and Probate Paralegal at the Law Office of Christopher C. Jones, Santa Barbara, California. She also is an instructor at the UCSB Extension Paralegal Certificate Program and currently serves as the President of the Santa Barbara Paralegal Association. She has been a paralegal since the early 1970’s and earned her Paralegal Certificate from UCSB Extension in 1984. She participated in the NFPA’s white paper committee which wrote the first definition of the term, “paralegal.” In the mid-1980’s, she testified before the California State Bar’s Public Protection Committee on the subject of paralegal regulation and before the California Senate’s Sub-Committee on the Judiciary concerning Paralegal Licensure. She acquired a California private, post secondary teaching credential in Paralegal Studies in 1990. Co-author of the Practicing Law Institute’s Workshop for Legal Assistant’s Handbook, she has also published many articles on subjects of interest to paralegals in a variety of newsletters and magazines. She may be contacted at: barbara@eatonjones.com.

The line of text in this post that really caught my eye was when Barbara described the Lone Ranger referring to Tonto as “Kemo Sabe” or  “faithful friend.” Many attorneys would openly embrace this type of relationship and working dynamic with a paralegal. I’ve certainly had the pleasure of working for several of them over the years. Yet, other attorneys keep a watchful eye on the perceived “pecking order” within the law firm, making the term “faithful friend” completely inappropriate in their eyes. We have a feeling most of the paralegals out there would prefer to work for attorneys who fall into the first category, rather than the latter.

Do you have any additional examples of “sidekicks” you’d like to add to Barbara’s list? What are your thoughts regarding the role of a paralegal as a “faithful friend” to an attorney? We’d love to hear your thoughts!