As a child, I was obsessed with the show “Unsolved Mysteries.” As I watched an episode, I would imagine that I would one day solve it. Anyone who knew me well as a little girl, would probably tell you that I was irritatingly inquisitive. However, I learned at some point that asking a lot of questions was not seen as a virtue, so I began to look to books for answers. I wouldn’t consider myself a millennial because I grew up before cell phones and computers were mainstream, and encyclopedias were my best research tools. My early life was somewhat secluded because I was homeschooled and was not involved in any homeschool groups. Books were quite literally my door to the outside world. You probably can already pinpoint the origin of my love of research, but feel free to blame it on homeschooling and watching too many episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries.”
In my early twenties, I started working in customer service. In spite of, and maybe even because of, my limited social experience, my dream was to find a career that I could grow, learn, research, and use my work ethic to help people. While I wasn’t exactly sure what that would look like, it was enough to lead me to seek higher education by the time I was 26. Shortly before that decision, my husband and I went through the legal process of getting temporary custody of his niece and nephew. Since we were going through this experience without an attorney, I quickly learned two things: there is a lot more that goes into a legal proceeding than the general public realizes, and I never wanted to feel that helpless again. My only early exposure to the word “paralegal” was knowing that my mom worked as one for a bankruptcy attorney in Virginia when I was a baby. At some point during the custody proceedings, my mom mentioned in passing that I would probably be a good paralegal. After (you guessed it) researching the career, I enrolled in the Paralegal Technology program at Carteret Community College. I spent the next two years working full time, going to school full time and taking care of my family.
I have now worked in the legal field for three years, first as a Family Law paralegal, then as a Legal Assistant at the firm I’m with now, and ultimately transitioned to the Litigation Paralegal role in March of 2018. I love this profession because it allows me to feed my inquisitive nature, help other people with situations that can be very confusing and scary, and learn something new every day. My attitude in most situations is that if I’m told it can’t be done, I will find a way. So I’d like to share a few tidbits I’ve learned about research in the past three years.
Interviewing a Client or Witness
One of the biggest changes I had to adapt to when I switched from Family Law to Civil Litigation was the way we communicate with our clients. I found that I enjoyed speaking with Family Law clients, because I was able to relate on many levels, offering empathy with emotionally stable feedback. Once I got used to interviewing clients to find out information needed to draft a Complaint or an Answer and Counterclaim, I learned that listening was key. After clients related their stories, I would make my interview conversational based on notes I took, which helped to bring the client around to the actual issues at hand in order to substantiate their claims or defenses.
It was quite a transition from Family Law to Insurance Defense, where our client is the insurance company, and we interview their insured(s). There is usually a lot less emotion in interviewing someone who was involved in a non-fatal car accident, a breach of contract claim, or a construction case. These cases are more about liability and the facts that prove or disprove the same. If liability of our client/insured is clear, the focus shifts more to how we can lessen our client’s monetary exposure.
In a motor vehicle accident, the interview is more focused on a timeline and finding out about potential witnesses and statements. I still try to make these interviews more conversational than just going through a list of questions. People are more likely to tell all of the information the first time and be truthful when they feel like they are speaking with an advocate rather than being interrogated. Conversely, when I am speaking with a contractor, I find they are more fact-focused and business-like, and the information gathered centers around contractual duties and who performed specific work.
When I interview a witness, I switch gears. Many people are reluctant to speak with an attorney’s office because they are afraid they will somehow be brought into the suit. I usually start out the conversation letting them know that they are in no way a part of the lawsuit but that I would like to speak with them about what they may have heard or seen. Most of the time, this puts the witness at ease, and they are willing to share. After the witness has finished their statement, I will ask them if they would be willing to sign an Affidavit or be deposed in the future, if needed. Most of the time, their answer is affirmative. If you believe a witness has important information, communicate with your attorney about moving forward with this as soon as possible. The more time that passes since your first contact with a witness, the less likely they generally are to cooperate and be a favorable witness.
Medical Record Summaries
One of the most time-consuming, mind-numbing, yet under-appreciated tasks that a litigation paralegal may do is summarizing medical records. I have found that, while it can be tempting to skim through and overly-summarize the information found in medical records, there can be little nuggets of gold buried in the midst of Review of Systems or in a Physical Therapy Subjective. When I begin to summarize medical records, I will pull up the file summary and discovery summary and take quick mental notes of the claimed injuries and their responses to interrogatories regarding past injuries and claims.
Recently, I was summarizing records in an employer negligence case in which the plaintiff fell. In his discovery and deposition testimony, he claimed he had never had similar injuries in the past. However, I found in one of his prior orthopedic records where he referenced an accident he had years before that was nearly identical to the subject accident and resulted in virtually the same injuries. My attorney used this record as an exhibit in support of one of his arguments in a Motion for Summary Judgment, which was ultimately granted. While this was not the sole reason he moved for Summary Judgment, it certainly strengthened his argument in light of the plaintiff’s differing answers under oath.
In motor vehicle accident cases, once a claimant goes for follow-up care, they often tend to mention pain in multiple areas. I will refer to the EMS or hospital records and see that they denied pain in a certain area while in their later chiropractic records they claim extreme pain in that area. When further reviewing their medical records prior to the accident, I will often find the pre-existing complaints and/or treatment for that particular pain or issue. In my medical summaries, I highlight in yellow complaints related to the accident and use bold red font for anything that was a prior issue. This helps bring attention to important records and saves a lot of time when preparing for a deposition and identifying certain records that the attorney may want to use as an exhibit for questioning the plaintiff.
In Closing …
Never underestimate your contribution to a case as a paralegal. Take the extra time to glean witness information, review medical records with attention to detail, and let your attorney know immediately about anything your research reveals. The more familiar you are with the crucial issues of a case, the better you can focus your research. If you are unsure of the specific legal issues that the case is focused around, be sure to ask your attorney. I know that we all are afraid to ask certain questions, often because we don’t want someone to think we are unknowledgeable, but it will save you time in the long run. I would prefer to ask for clarification on the issues than to waste time and report information that, although interesting, may not help the case at all. Continue to grow and think outside the box to hone your research skills, and you will have the personal satisfaction that you are an integral part of a case’s outcome.
Rachel Royal is a Litigation Paralegal at McAngus, Goudelock & Courie in Wilmington. I live in Hampstead, NC with my husband Reuben and our 7 year old son Phoenix. When I’m not working I can be found spending time with my family. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and learned how to golf, fish, and use power tools at an early age and have always enjoyed reading, writing, cooking, music, and outdoor activities. In the past year, I have found a love for Olympic Weightlifting, and even competed twice in 2018. I have been involved with the Paralegal Division since 2015 as a student member and have been a Council Member and Pro Bono Co-Chair since May of 2018. My goal as a division member is to help other paralegals feel pride in their career and to promote involvement in pro bono services across the state.