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By: Karen George, FRP

We’re all familiar with Erin Brockovich as the aspiring paralegal and Matt Damon as the young lawyer who catch the big, bad corporation pouring poison into the lake and ground water causing the town’s people to die from cancers and babies to be born with defects. This makes for good Hollywood productions and big box office hits.

This is not about Hollywood or box office hits, this is about you, me and paralegals everywhere, helping your attorney advocate for your client, Plaintiff or Defendant.  This is about working as a paralegal, ethics, laws, smoking guns and the occasional surprise. This is about keeping an open mind and realizing, things are not always what they seem, at first blush.

The vision of Erin is what spurred you to go to paralegal school, it is that vision that spurs you through those long nights and days of studying and passing tests to gain your degree in Paralegal.

The reality of paralegal work is, you sit for hours and days, weeks and months even, going over documents (paper and electronic) produced in response to Requests for Production and subpoenas. You review and scrutinize interrogatory responses that send you on further investigations. You are working as a paralegal with your attorney to advocate for your client. This is what a paralegal does, equally by plaintiff and defense paralegals.

However, the day comes when an innocuous line, a sentence, a diagnosis on a paper stands out at you, you stop, you ponder, you re-read and you check other documents to confirm what you “think” you have discovered IS what you think. Slowly realization hits you – you found the smoking gun! Your heart pounds, your palms sweat and you question yourself.  You timidly walk into your attorney’s office to offer up the paper for his review. Your attorney reads and asks you some questions, you respond and wait… and then, you see it, the realization dawns on your attorney’s face. YOU WERE RIGHT! This is it – this is the evidence that is going to make the case for your client! This piece of evidence, small as it is, a pebble if you will has turned into the stone in David’s sling to defeat Goliath. And you, you were the one who stumbled upon it through your sleek, tenacious, sharp examination of the evidence – as a paralegal!

These dreams often come true, maybe not quite as exciting as what I’ve written here, but sometimes even more exciting. Sometimes it is not quite the smoking gun but instead is the smoke that that leads to the smoking gun that, but for your sleek work, would not have been found. You are the proud virtuous Plaintiff paralegal! You have vanquished the Goliath! You are Erin/Matt Damon!

But wait a minute, what if instead the story is the other way around? What if you are a defense paralegal and the smoking gun is instead, that of the Plaintiff?

What if the Plaintiff responds to interrogatories that he has never been a plaintiff or defendant in any other case and you find reams of cases on the court docket involving lawsuits by the Plaintiff, against doctors, drivers, manufacturers, etc., or what if the Plaintiff has a criminal record for a matter involving moral turpitude?

As a paralegal you learn the lesson early on that sometimes things aren’t always what they seem at first blush. Sometimes that injured victim who walks through your door for deposition, with the limp, the cast, the brace on his neck is not quite the victim he makes himself out to be. Sometimes these victims who come limping and bandaged into your office are people who have accidents for a living. Sometimes the victim is a malingerer, a professional con artist.

Certainly, I’m not saying all Plaintiffs are crooked con-artists, but I have seen my fair share through my years of working on the defense side of: toxic torts, medical malpractice, legal malpractice, personal injury, worker’s compensation and others.

Through my deft examination of evidence produced by plaintiffs through discovery, evidence has revealed itself that has led me on an investigation that often measures up to Sam Spade and Indiana Jones. I have discovered that although the Plaintiff claims to have never had a back injury, he was a plaintiff in a prior accident involving just that L3-L4 vertebrae claimed in my case, that C3-4; the L5-S1 (most common) injury was long standing from a work injury. A similar search of the worker compensation records reveals at least one, if not more, worker compensation claims. But what about those instances where the claim was settled prior to suit?

This is where things can get juicy and require some deeper digging, subpoenas to health insurance and auto insurance carriers, reviewing background searches and license histories. However, long it takes, no matter how many medical records you have to review and sift through (and there are always many), you can usually find – if not the smoking gun – the smoke that will lead to it.

There are people who walk the streets, drive cars and work in the store, the coffee shop or the construction worker, who are actually looking for a doctor to claim medical practice against, jump in front of a car in traffic and slam on their brakes or intentionally fall off a chair and “get injured” on the job. Viewing video surveillance tapes, I have watched people drop a bottle on the floor and throw (yes “throw”) themselves on the floor claiming premises liability. I have known of (didn’t work on these cases, but read about them in our local newspapers) “rings of accident fakers” who band together in groups of three and four, or more, to create accidents to file lawsuits.

As paralegals, we must always approach a case put before us with an open mind, a legal mind, a mind and eye educated and trained in ethics and the law. We must put aside our hearts, our religion and our personal experiences. We must always keep an open mind because you never know what is going to reveal itself in the next line, the next piece of paper that can completely change your case, one way or another.

Sometimes, the victim is not the bandaged, the limping, but instead, the accused; the defendant is the victim of the bandaged and limping accuser.

Regardless who you advocate for, keep an open mind, give the case all you’ve got. You owe your time, skill, fortitude and attention to your client, as well as your employing attorney. Whether there is smoke billowing from the doorway of your office after the discovery of an incredibly important discovery or a smoking gun in your hand at the end of a days work, what you will know is that you gave it all you had – to the client, the firm and the cause, as you followed the documented trail and reams of boxes and papers to the place it would lead. Not much more you can ask for in a day’s work…or in a paralegal.

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Even as a Plaintiff’s paralegal, I gotta admit, I really enjoyed Karen’s article. It was relatable content, regardless of the side of the arena in which you find yourself standing. 

Wishing you a fabulous day in the land of legal, TPSers! We hope to see some smoke billowing from your office doorway later today – due to your amazing awesomeness and not a brush fire, of course!    

p.s.
If you are planning to join us in the TPS Book Club for the reading of the book “The Charge,” be sure to join our LinkedIn group and pop onto our discussion. Our first assigned section of reading will include the forward and Chapters 1 & 2. The deadline is February 19, 2014, at which time the discussion will open in our LinkedIn group. Join us on LinkedIn today or you will miss out on the social element (the fun part). Note: No future announcements will be made on the blog regarding the assigned sections or the Book Club. (And even if you aren’t joining us in the Book Club, do feel free to join our Social Club. All “friendly” legal peeps are always welcome!)