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Playing It Smart
Paralegals from both sides reveal their winning strategies.
In the sports world, most athletes spend their entire careers playing one position: a quarterback in football, a point guard in basketball, a shortstop in baseball. Others, though, are known as utility players or those who play both sides of the ball: the wide receiver on offense on a football team who also is a cornerback on defense; the power forward on the basketball court who moves to be the big man at center; the third baseman, adept at fielding line drives, who can switch to catching pop flies as shortstop. Their philosophy of the game might differ and their particular strengths and weaknesses might vary, but whether they play one position or many, they all are working together, as a team, with winning being the ultimate goal.
The same could be said of many paralegals. Whether because of happenstance or preference, opportunity or timing, comfort or curiosity, some legal assistants spend their careers on the plaintiff or defense side of civil cases, while others work both sides, either chronologically or contemporaneously.
Stephanie Gillespie has been a paralegal for 12 years and holds a certificate from the American Institute for Paralegal Studies. She is an eight-year veteran paralegal of Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog, a Raleigh, N.C. firm with more than 100 attorneys. She helps defend litigants in medical malpractice, property and automobile lawsuits. At the time of publication, Gillespie was transferring to Young Moore & Henderson, a defense firm in Raleigh.
Connie Scorza, CLA, CAS-Litigation, has been a paralegal since 1977, and is a New York native who earned her CLA certification in 1983 and her designation as a California Advanced Specialist-Litigation in 1999. She has spent most of her career representing plaintiffs in personal injury, medical malpractice and product liability cases, and is currently working part time for the Law Offices of R. Nathan Gonzales, a solo practitioner in Silver City, N.M.
For 19 years, Nita Hanson worked on plaintiff’s cases with attorney Dennis McCarthy in Columbus, Ohio. Then, in 1999, she became a defense paralegal in the Columbus office of Cleveland-based firm Thompson Hine, where she currently works. On the plaintiff side, she worked on a wide array of tort cases, including personal injury, medical malpractice, product liability, and bad faith and HMO insurance claims. Today, she works on complex civil litigation involving banks, manufacturing companies, and corporations with multiple litigation matters across the nation and in foreign countries. Hanson was recently accepted for admission to Capital University Law School, and will begin its part-time, evening program this August.
Vicki McCoy has spent her 20-year paralegal career with the same group of attorneys, and always has done plaintiff’s work. McCoy started working for a small law firm in Columbus, Ohio in 1980 as a legal secretary. In 1994, she and three lawyers left the small firm and joined Palmer Volkema Thomas, in Columbus. Today, she is one of seven paralegals in the eight-attorney plaintiff’s firm, handling mostly personal injury and medical negligence.
With a background in mental health and a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy from the University of Florida, Karen Castillo worked as a recreational therapist with the mentally challenged and as a rehabilitation therapist at the state hospital for the criminally insane. In 1981, she earned a paralegal certificate at Miami’s Barry College (now Barry University) and joined the Miami firm of Steel Hector & Davis. Twenty-three years later, she works both sides of civil litigation. For plaintiffs, most of her work is in employment law; for defendants, it’s primarily contract disputes and securities litigation.
DIFFERENT GAME PLANS
Paralegals working for plaintiff firms often have a heart for fighting injustice and want to be part of a team to right a wrong. Plaintiff paralegals assume many duties and various roles on their legal team.
As a plaintiff’s paralegal in medical malpractice suits, Connie Scorza said she usually is involved with the attorney in the initial intake interview, asking questions, taking notes and making sure they have all the necessary information. Currently living in Silver City, N.M., and working for the Law Offices of R. Nathan Gonzales, she gathers records and acts as the initial liaison between the client and the office. The first documents she drafts comprise a settlement/demand package. If a settlement isn’t reached, she drafts the complaint, propounds discovery and, with the client, responds to discovery.
“When discovery responses come in, I summarize them and see what is missing or if we need to follow up on anything,” Scorza said.
Scorza also schedules independent medical examinations, when applicable, and will attend if the attorney is unavailable. “It’s a matter of firm resources,” she explained.
Over the years, Scorza has served as an extra set of eyes and ears at depositions and hearings. “I can pick up when a client is scared, nervous or misunderstands a question,” she said. “Plaintiffs are typically not sophisticated litigants. It’s their first time being involved in the legal process and they are very nervous about everything.”
Another of Scorza’s roles might be to contract with an outside company to prepare a day-in-the-life video presentation and provide input on the final product.
During the 19 years Nita Hanson participated in the representation of plaintiffs with Dennis McCarthy in Columbus, Ohio, Hanson said she attended nearly every trial. “I was the stage manager, making sure witnesses were where they were supposed to be and ready to testify, and the evidence that needed to be introduced was ready to go,” she said.
Hanson said her involvement with the plaintiff’s side was very different from the defense side of litigation, where she now usually operates at Thompson Hine. In a plaintiff’s motor vehicle accident, where early efforts are made to secure a negotiated settlement, the tasks are geared toward a presentation to the insurance company, Hanson said. On the other hand, if it becomes clear a settlement is not a viable alternative, the case moves toward trial.
With 20 years of plaintiff paralegal experience under her belt, Vicki McCoy and the firm’s other paralegals at Palmer Volkema Thomas in Columbus, Ohio, typically are assigned to one attorney and spend much of their time behind the scenes in her firm’s cases. “I don’t go to depositions, but I do go to some trials. Since the attorney has to be in court, I also juggle the rest of our caseload,” she said.
McCoy’s duties include participating in the initial interview, working up and organizing the file, obtaining the supporting documentation and contact with the client, the adjusters, defense counsel, physicians and experts. She also drafts documents, including discovery and discovery responses, and makes all arrangements for depositions, travel, meetings and trial testimony. “The most important tool is communication with your attorney, and I have been fortunate to work with the best,” she said.
McCoy estimates about 10 percent of her cases go to trial. The remainder settle, often through mediation. “I am a big fan of mediation,” she said. “When a case is mediated, the people involved look absolutely at the facts and sympathy isn’t a huge factor. With a jury pool, you have to worry about sympathy or the lack of it.”
Karen Castillo, whose job is to work on both sides of the law at Steel Hector in Miami, said regardless of which side of the case she is on, she starts preparing for trial when the case comes in the door. On the plaintiff’s side, she collects relevant documents to see if they bear out the client’s story. “I keep a numerical list of all productions during discovery and premark deposition exhibits with numbers that will become trial exhibit numbers. We use the same documents over and over, so by the time we get to trial, I know the numbers by heart.
“By the time you walk into the courtroom, you have to be ready,” Castillo added. “Whether it’s a plaintiff’s case or a defense case, I hate to settle on the courthouse steps. We have worked so hard to get there.”
Perry Mason and Matlock — both come to mind in the exciting portrayal of the defense side on TV. In the real world, defense paralegals, along with their defense teams, often find themselves defending a client against a plaintiff out to make a fortune at the defendant’s expense.
Stephanie Gillespie works on the defense side at Cranfill, Sumner in North Carolina, to help litigants in medical malpractice, property and automobile lawsuits. Before Gillespie joined Cranfill, Sumner, however, she worked in a plaintiff’s firm for four years at Hafer, McNamara, Caldwell, Carrway & Layton. “There is a different mind set when you approach a case from one perspective or the other,” she said. “When you are representing the defense and putting together discovery, you have to determine how the plaintiff was injured, and that person wants someone to pay money to compensate him or her for his or her injuries. [On the defense side] the mind set is that anything out there could have contributed to the injury, and you need to find a way to figure out whether the plaintiff had the injury before the incident and whether there is anything that would mitigate the damages.”
Gillespie said although her responsibilities vary depending on the case, she follows a similar procedure regardless of the subject matter — she conducts a conflicts check, sets up a file and gets an extension to answer the complaint or any other discovery request when necessary.
Gillespie assumes a primary role during the discovery phase of medical malpractice litigation, drafting initial discovery requests that include two sets of interrogatories. Discovery responses are another of her primary responsibilities.
Although her firm employs nurse paralegals who review medical records and prepare chronologies in medical malpractice cases, Gillespie has that responsibility in her other cases.
Gillespie also locates witnesses and helps determine what experts might be necessary. She said she rarely attends depositions in any of her cases. “We work for insurance companies, which usually will not pay for multiple people to go. If I can’t bill for my time, it’s not a good use of my time,” she said. “But if a case is document intensive, sometimes the attorneys will want me there.”
Hanson’s experience working on the defense side varies from that of Gillespie’s. Hanson attends key depositions, most evidentiary hearings and all trials. “I start to fill out my checklist when I get the trial date. It helps me remember to get everything in line, like where witnesses are and how to contact them, and what evidence will be admitted under what rule and through which witness,” she said.
Like Scorza for the plaintiff, Hanson provides an extra set of eyes and ears for the defense. “I take lots of notes about what the lawyers on the other side say the case is going to be about, keep track of whether witnesses say what we expect them to say or whether witnesses testify contrary to their depositions or documents. I can see whether jurors are engaged and how they react.”
Hanson also said it’s important to look at jury instructions early in a defense case. “Those are the instructions the jury will be given on what the law is,” she said. “If you look at them early in the case, you start to figure out what witnesses and evidence will get you there. It’s a creative process.”
Over the years, Hanson has learned how to look at the big picture. “You have to focus on more than how to get from point A to point B to point C. When you are at point A and you know you eventually need to be at point Z, you have to ask, ‘How do A and B fit? Can I jump ahead to G?’ Instead of each task being an isolated activity, all are targeted at a single goal,” she said.
And Hanson knows about putting the pieces together to reach that goal. “I spend a significant amount of time as the document management point person, keeping track of what documents were produced to whom, on what basis, and in response to what. I know which documents are key and what technology we will use,” she said.
Castillo’s approach to a case varies depending on which side she is working. “When you represent the defendant, the plaintiff already has his story. You have to take that story and see if it stands up, see how you can break it up. You try to become creative and go on the offensive,” she said.
When representing a defendant, Castillo investigates the veracity of the plaintiff’s allegations. “I find the defense side more challenging because you have to unravel the plaintiff’s story and poke holes in it,” she explained. “If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that documents don’t lie. When the documents are originally prepared, people are not thinking about suing somebody; they are just documenting what happens.”
After more than two decades as a paralegal, Castillo said she can look at the big picture in a case and very quickly come up with a game plan. “I ask myself, ‘How do we want to use the information, and what do we want to get out of it?’” she said. “On a contract dispute case, the correspondence will be important; on a product liability case, the correspondence isn’t as important as employment, insurance, background and medical records. In both instances, we come out with a story and often can turn the tables on the other side.”
Commitment to the Game
One important consideration when working for the plaintiff or the defense is the time commitment involved. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to how much time a defense paralegal will work versus the time commitment required of a plaintiff paralegal.
In Hanson’s experience, she said the time commitment on the plaintiff and the defense sides of a case is about the same. “Each side often disrupts the timetable of the other side by raising unexpected issues, or by raising expected issues at inopportune times.”
Because of the nature of trial work, the time commitment has always varied greatly from week to week, Hanson said. “Trial time often is dawn to dusk, but other events cause peak periods of activity, such as major filing deadlines, major depositions or the times when the firm is retained to handle a major new matter.”
As a plaintiff’s paralegal, Scorza said she works long, hard hours during trial.
The hours McCoy works as a plaintiff’s paralegal vary depending on her attorney’s trial schedule and the client’s schedule and availability. “It’s definitely not a nine to five job. It’s not unusual to work extra hours during the week depending on your various deadlines and commitments,” she said.
For Gillespie, the time commitment as a defense paralegal depends on the case and trial she is working on. “More often than not, I work regular hours. If we are preparing for trial or a motion, I might work late some evenings and on weekends. At my current firm, overtime is definitely the exception and not the rule.”
Litigators who work on large-scale commercial litigation put in a lot of time, according to Castillo. “I can work 10 hours a day, five days a week on regular days, plus weekends for large filings such as motions for summary judgment or briefs in appellate courts. Sometimes, preparations for large trials require us to work six days a week for up to three months, 10 to 12 hours a day,” she said. “It takes a lot of time to leave no stone unturned.”
Some paralegals find the salary varies in accordance to which side of a case they work. “My impression is that, almost universally, defense firms pay more,” Hanson said.
Castillo said she has heard if a paralegal works for a plaintiff-oriented law firm, there are some hefty bonuses available.
Gillespie has personally seen a difference in her pay since she has been at a defense firm. “There was a difference in the pay scale in my case. I received an increase in salary when I moved to a defense firm.”
Gillespie added that although she can’t make a blanket statement about salaries, in her experience she has found that the size of the firm also makes a difference in salary. “It has been my experience that larger firms tend to offer higher salaries than smaller firms. I know of paralegals at plaintiff firms that receive higher end-of-year or holiday bonuses or receive bonuses throughout the year, which might make up for the possibility that they have lower salaries.”
Building a Team
Due to the time expended on a case, paralegals form working relationships with clients.
Gillespie said her relationships with nonmedical malpractice clients often begin with the initial contact. “A lot of the time, I will send a letter stating the firm has been retained by their insurance company to represent them and ask that they call us. I will interview them over the phone or get them to come to the office to meet with the lawyer and me. Other times, I will set up a time for the lawyer to meet them outside the office, and sometimes I go along,” she said. “I try not to do anything where my time isn’t billed. That can be frustrating, because I [originally started out at] a plaintiff’s firm where cases were handled on a contingent fee basis and I went wherever the lawyer went. On defense cases, I am sometimes limited in what I can do. But clients need to know the lawyer and the paralegal, and they need to know us more than just on the phone.”
Although many of the cases in which Scorza has been involved have long since been resolved, she said she carries them with her. “You don’t forget about cases,” she said, commenting that many sensitive cases dealing with injury still cross her mind today.
McCoy said her favorite part of the job is the initial client interview. “I feel like I am meeting for the first time someone I will spend a lot of time with over a long period. Clients talk about what they have been through and how their injuries have affected their lives. That interview is the first piece of the lawsuit puzzle,” she said.
Whether a paralegal works for plaintiffs or defendants, McCoy said, it’s important to follow your heart. “You need to have a cause, an issue or people you believe in,” she said. “You have to care.”
Hanson said on the plaintiff side, she was the point of contact for clients. “I formed a very personal relationship with them. I was involved in a very emotional part of their lives — either they had been hurt or someone they loved had been hurt or killed. There was a significant amount of hand-holding, which (for the most part) I liked. I liked giving them a listening ear and sometimes a shoulder to cry on.”
On the defense side, Hanson said she has much less direct client contact. “Sometimes I will work on one matter for a client, never to encounter them again. Over the last five years I have had the privilege of developing relationships with representatives of a number of our corporate clients. In fact, a friend of mine who is now the director of legal services for a design/build firm has retained Thompson Hine on a number of legal claims. It’s different, to be sure, but similar in that I am passionate about our clients receiving my best efforts, always,” she said.
Castillo said the side of the case she works on has nothing to do with the relationship she has with a client. “I have cried for our clients, and not looked favorably on others.”
And Gillespie said helping someone get through the maze of the legal process gives her great satisfaction. “The closest some clients have come to litigation is watching ‘Law and Order’ on TV. Then they get something in the mail asking for $500,000 and their first thought is they are going to lose everything. It’s a very stressful and emotional time for them. It’s a good feeling to know I have helped them. At the end of the day, I feel I have accomplished something and have done something good.”
Many variables come into play and influence paralegals to work for either a defense or plaintiff firm, or both, and they usually prefer one side over the other.
Gillespie prefers the defense perspective and working on medical malpractice cases. “I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that my philosophy is more in line with defense work,” she said. “There are people who are legitimately injured, but there also are people who think they are going to file a lawsuit and get so rich they will never have to work again.”
Although she does favor defense work, Gillespie credits her early years on the plaintiff’s side at Hafer, McNamara with providing the foundation for her defense work. “Those attorneys taught me everything,” she said. “They made sure anytime there was an opportunity to learn, I went. It was both a job and an internship.”
It’s plaintiff’s work that has always given Scorza the most satisfaction. As a plaintiff’s paralegal, her job is to help determine how clear liability is, the extent of the plaintiff’s injury, and whether he or she was contributorily negligent. “I also want to know whether the client is interested in getting better,” Scorza said.
The transition from plaintiff to primarily defense work has not always been easy for Hanson, but she said it always has been rewarding. “I feel fortunate to be associated with Thompson Hine,” she said. “The breadth of cases I have had an opportunity to work on has been very good for me.”
Hanson admitted, though, that finding passion can be more difficult on the defense side than on the plaintiff’s. “It’s harder to find one person to care about, but if you can find a legal issue you care about, you can be passionate and be a good advocate. You will not do just a good job, you will do your best job.”
The bulk of McCoy’s cases are personal injury and medical negligence. “I like personal injury cases more.” She said medical cases are hard to deal with emotionally and often result in permanent injury or death, and the families are more affected.
Castillo said she doesn’t have a preference to working for the plaintiff or defense side. “Just give me something I can sink my teeth into. Who needs to read legal thrillers? I live them.”
Gillespie, who is the two-term immediate past president of the Raleigh-Wake Paralegal Association, frequently shares her professional experiences with paralegal students in a local law office management class. As a guest speaker, she tells them to talk to a lot of working paralegals and figure out what piques their interest. “Whatever you do — whether it’s plaintiff or defense — you are not married to that. When I started out [on the plaintiff’s side], I didn’t know at first it was not right for me. I tell students to try out different things and ask themselves, ‘Do I love it? Am I learning and getting experience?’ They may decide it’s not for them, but they will take with them everything they learned.”
Despite their different approaches and regardless of whether they represent plaintiffs, defendants or both, one thing is certain: All five of these advocates are team players who have found their rightful positions in — or, in sports parlance, on — the field of law.
Debra Levy Martinelli is a freelance writer from Norman, Okla., where she serves as a court appointed special advocate. A paralegal for 20 years in New Mexico and Oklahoma, she worked in the areas of media and employment law, product liability, medical malpractice, and banking, business and real estate law. Martinelli holds bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism and is a frequent contributor to LAT. She also has written for Law Office Computing, NurseWeek, Oklahoma Today, Sooner Magazine, Albuquerque Living, and New Mexico Business Journal.
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