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Historically, it was the rare and fortunate paralegal who was granted the opportunity to attend trial in any capacity. In the past, to qualify for this reward, paralegals needed to pair up with an attorney who either clearly understood the role of the paralegal or who, frankly, just needed a porter to transport hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of exhibits. Rarer still was the paralegal who sat at the counsel table and assisted the attorney directly. In recent years, though, paralegals have become trial specialists, as they’ve taken larger roles in both preparing for and assisting during trial. What changed? A few factors are more sophisticated trial technology, clients’ insistence that firms use more paralegals to save legal costs, expectations of juries in terms of visual presentations, and the size of cases. “Paralegals who attend at trial perform a myriad of functions, ranging from witness preparation, document organization and retrieval, exhibit assistance, legal research, fact research, and really just about anything else the attorney might ask of them,” says Ann Price, case manager for the Washington, D.C., office of Patton Boggs. “The paralegal’s role can range from something as mundane as securing war room space in a nearby hotel to sitting at or near counsel table during the trial.” THE PLUM JOBS Who gets to be a trial specialist? According to Price, the paralegal with the most experience typically gets the plum trials, but most of all, it depends on the attorney’s confidence in the paralegal. There are many factors that go into the decision about whom to take to trial: experience, demeanor, temperament, skills, willingness to work long hours under stress, billing rates, and availability. Experience at trial is an essential component of training for a trial specialist. Now, though, a trial specialist must have skills that go beyond the realm of understanding court procedures and how to handle court filings. Training that develops skills in electronic discovery processes and electronic trial presentations is important. The more involved the trial specialist becomes in building the information used in the case, the more likely he will be sitting either at the counsel table or nearby. Mastering document databases so that information can be located immediately during the trial can make the trial specialist an integral resource. Years ago, anyone who wanted to could call herself a paralegal. The field required little or no training. Today paralegals come into the field with broader backgrounds in technology, business, science, and general education. Possessing a more wide-ranging background in higher education gives the paralegal a leg up in understanding the nature of the cases, where to perform solid factual research, and what questions to ask of expert witnesses, not to mention a better understanding of the often-complex complaints, the large number of exhibits, and an attorney’s trial strategy. According to a recent survey conducted by Legal Assistant Today magazine, 72 percent of paralegals (based on a random sampling of 2,000 subscribers) hold a paralegal certificate. Though not every paralegal has a paralegal certificate, more than 58 percent of respondents have a B.A. degree, some postgraduate education, or a master’s degree. Employers too are seeking paralegals with more than a high school diploma. The survey showed that at least 50 percent of the paralegals surveyed work for employers who required a paralegal certificate as a minimum hiring requirement. A paralegal certificate is awarded upon completion of specialized training in paralegal studies. The type of school can range from those offering postgraduate training to a two- or four-year degree program. “The trend toward increased utilization of paralegals at trial is due, in part, to increased client sensitivity to costs as well as better-educated and more skilled paralegals,” says Price. “Much of the courtroom presentation today is computerized and requires someone to organize the electronic data to free the attorneys up to actually concentrate on the questions and answers of the witnesses.” In the past the primary duties of the paralegal at trial were logistical and organizational. Keeping track of exhibits, perhaps taking notes, and soothing anxious clients during trial were often the extent of the tasks expected. At the same time that paralegals have become better educated and their skills recognized, cases have become more complex. As a result, paralegals are more frequently accepted as team members when it comes to planning strategies and trying cases. Trial specialists “are actively involved in the selection and administration of electronic solutions to document management, well versed in searching in electronic databases, and familiar with the options for presenting information to judges and juries using graphic and trial-exhibit software,” says Gary Melhuish, director of litigation legal assistants for Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll in Philadelphia. “This is in addition to the traditional tasks performed by litigation legal assistants during trial.” A paralegal who is involved in a case from the outset is often the person most familiar with the facts, evidence, and people integral to the matter. He has the most regular contact with the parties and witnesses and is constantly gathering facts and evidence. Melhuish, the immediate past president of the International Paralegal Management Association, attributes the more sophisticated use of paralegals to the advent of electronic discovery. “E-discovery has contributed greatly to the paralegal’s deeper involvement in trial preparation. The gathering, sorting, summarizing, and potential presentation of documents obtained is highly specialized and technical. Many firms hire outside vendors to deal with e-discovery, and it is the paralegal who will work with the vendor throughout the entire process, including trial.” According to Melhuish, the paralegal’s intimate knowledge of the facts, combined with good research and writing skills, enables her to draft pretrial briefs, motions, and pleadings, as well as summarize depositions and records. Preparing these documents further increases the paralegal’s understanding of the facts and law pertaining to the issues and adds to her ability to contribute to planning specific strategies. The paralegal is the legal team member who keeps the trial notebook up-to-date, always knows how best to contact parties and witnesses, and knows where the documents and other evidence are. He knows about the availability of experts and other witnesses for trial and how to get them to the courthouse on a moment’s notice. REMEMBER THE DETAILS In addition, the paralegal is usually responsible for preparing exhibits to be used at trial as well as keeping track of them during trial. If documents need to be enlarged and mounted, if models are to be made, if computer-generated presentations are required, the paralegal will perform these tasks. The attorneys will want the paralegal present at trial to make sure the exhibits are appropriately marked and tracked when they are offered into evidence. Court clerks, court reporters, and judges’ secretaries often rely upon the paralegal to check and cross-check exhibit numbers and the status of exhibits. Technology is no longer unusual in the courtroom, no matter what the size of the trial. Initially, trial presentations were often used as part of the “dog and pony show” many attorneys present in an effort to dazzle the judge and jury. “Now they are an accepted means of communicating information in a way that is accessible and efficient,” says Melhuish. “Paralegals play a role in determining how information is best presented to support the facts of the case. The paralegal may find and work with vendors who specialize in trial presentations.” Price, who manages high-profile trials in addition to supervising other paralegals, believes that many attorneys can’t focus on these solutions and prepare the case at the same time. “A trial specialist will work with the appropriate firm experts or will engage outside service providers to come up with appropriate and cost-effective solutions to the attorneys’ needs,” she says. Those paralegals seeking to advance are looking at the trial specialist position as another rung up a newly created career ladder. “Paralegals are being asked to be much more proactive today than five years ago,” says Melhuish. “A good paralegal is finding ways to become more useful to the attorney, rather than waiting for the attorney to assign tasks.”
Chere B. Estrin is CEO of Los Angeles-based Estrin LegalEd, a paralegal training organization. Ellen Sheffer is conference director for Estrin LegalEd.

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