Vail Law: Explaining the invaluable roles of court clerks, law clerks and paralegals (column)
Paralegals are gods. OK, well, not exactly gods, but let’s just say that a good paralegal is worth her weight in the riches of heaven.
Um … all right?
But, what exactly is a paralegal, and what does a paralegal do?
Let’s talk first about the most important things that paralegals do: They save attorney brain cells. And, at times, they save their bacon. A good paralegal is like Radar in the old M.A.S.H. series, sussing things out ahead of normal human perception.
A paralegal is a trained professional who is usually employed by a law firm (although there are some independent paralegals, and many who work for government or corporations) and performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. A paralegal keeps her finger on the pulse of the workflow through the office and directs and manages what is often a raging tide. She will tickle deadlines, often manage one or more lawyers’ calendars and generally assist attorneys in their work.
Paralegals may be tasked with supporting litigation, interfacing with clients, investigating various facts of a case, drafting pleadings, deposition notices, subpoenas, motions and briefs and interacting with the court. They may handle aspects of discovery and organize and manage files, documents and exhibits. They file documents with the courts and assist at hearings, arbitration, mediation, administrative proceedings, closings and trials.
Law establishes what a paralegal may not do. (For example, a paralegal may not give legal advice or appear on her own in court.) What she may do is highly dependent on the lawyer for whom she works. Many of the paralegals I have worked with are as wise, skilled and knowledgeable as the best attorney.
In the main, paralegals possess either a two-year associate’s degree, a four-year bachelor’s degree and/or a paralegal certificate. Most certification bodies require that a paralegal pass an examination and possess at least one year of experience in the field.
They must have a solid knowledge of legal terminology, federal and state rules of legal procedure and substantive law; and excellent organizational skills to manage voluminous case files and exhibits, which can number in the hundreds for a single case. Communication skills are crucial because paralegals regularly interact with clients, experts, vendors, court personnel and other attorneys. Strong research and writing skills are also essential for drafting pleadings, discovery, research memorandums, correspondence and other documents.
Paralegals are trusted colleagues upon whom many attorneys rely and without whom most attorneys would be lost. While like a quarterback, the attorneys often get the ticker tape, without the paralegals to block and tackle, the ball would never get near the goal line.
Not gods, exactly, but where would most attorneys be without them?
Also underappreciated are the court clerks and the law clerks, both of whom make the legal world spin on oiled bearings.
A court clerk is an officer of the court whose responsibilities include maintaining records and managing the court. They are generally divided into two types: administrative clerks and judicial clerks. Administrative clerks manage the crush of paper, calendars, administrative functions, notices and ceaseless demands that hammer the court like a fresh tsunami every day. They deal with lawyers, victims, suspects, law enforcement and the public in a slackline-like balancing that defies the laws of physics. And yet, they far and away do so with both competence and a smile.
Judicial clerks, while no less burdened, are to specific judges more like what paralegals are to lawyers. They support and assist the judge in managing the case flow, scheduling appearances, hearings, trials and the host of other details and minutiae that inundate the court. Like administrative clerks, they do so almost without fail both professionally and pleasantly.
A judicial clerk is another often hidden piece of the legal jigsaw. They are the behind-the scenes research arm of the court. Judicial clerks are attorneys who provide direct assistance and counsel to a judge in making legal determinations and in writing opinions by researching issues before the court. Judicial clerks often play significant roles in the formation of case law through their influence upon judges’ decisions.
Many times, judicial clerks are recent law school graduates, often those who performed at or near the top of their class. Other times, these are career positions that are invaluable to the court.
All of these are special people with special skill sets who are too often under-noticed and underappreciated but without whom the wheels of justice would grind to a befuddled stop. Each offers his or her essential skills and insights to make the legal system work.
Lawyers get the glory and judges often bear the blame, but much of the nuts and bolts that sustain the legal latticework are the paralegals and clerks who are the unsung heroes who keep the legal boat afloat.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, email@example.com.