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Paralegal Practice: Personal injury/Wrongful Death

Personal injury law is one of the legal industry’s most common practice areas and one in which paralegals play a vital role. Jamie Collins, a litigation paralegal for Yosha Cook Shartzer & Tisch in Indianapolis, Indiana, shares her experiences working in the areas of personal injury and wrongful death litigation.

How long have you been a paralegal? What is your educational background?

I have worked as a paralegal for over 14 years.

I started in the legal field with no experience or legal education, but earned my associate’s degree in paralegal studies from Ivy Tech Community College in 2003 while working part time at a law firm. I am currently working toward my bachelor’s degree in business management from Marian University. I work at Yosha Cook Shartzer & Tisch, a personal injury and wrongful death firm in Indianapolis, Indiana, founded by trial legend Louis “Buddy” Yosha. My firm consists of five attorneys, three paralegals and support staff.

What are your daily responsibilities?

My firm handles predominantly personal injury and wrongful death cases. I handle all of my assigned files from inception through settlement. In light of this all-encompassing structure, I perform a vast array of paralegal duties from the high level to the mundane. On a day-to-day basis, I do the work that needs to be done to move each file along the litigation pipeline toward settlement or trial.

On any given day, I interview potential clients; interact with clients, attorneys and court staff; draft letters and pleadings; review medical records; prepare medical chronologies; draft demand letters, witness and exhibit lists; prepare and compile discovery responses; open and organize files; and handle any other assignments that come my way.

Litigation moves at a fairly rapid pace, so you have to work in an organized and efficient manner and adhere to processes in order to streamline your work. (Personal Injury Paralegal Skills outlines in more detail the skills, knowledge and abilities required to succeed in the personal injury field).

What do you enjoy most about personal injury law?

What I like most about working as a litigation paralegal in the personal injury realm is helping injury victims seek justice. I really get to know my firm’s clients well. I develop a rapport with them, so having the ability to assist them in their time of need is truly rewarding for me. I really enjoy helping people.

Another thing I enjoy about my position is trial work. I never had the opportunity to participate in trials until I came to this firm. Trial preparation is not an easy task; you spend weeks of your life preparing for trial and you often go without the “4 F’s” (food, family, friends and free time) for days, weeks and even weekends. However, the rewards are so personally and professionally gratifying, that it makes every moment you spend without the “4 F’s” absolutely worth it. (Read about Jamie's most memorable trial and how she played a role in securing a favorable verdict.)

What does preparing for a personal injury trial entail?

You spend weeks working on one case, writing outlines, redacting medical records for social security numbers and insurance write-downs, copying and compiling exhibit binders and helping to prepare witnesses. You and your team then go to trial and every last ounce of effort, energy, skill and knowledge you have is left in that courtroom. You dedicate countless hours, days, weeks and weekends of your life to a cause - to a client - and it is exhilarating to stand in the courtroom and hear a jury verdict read aloud after you’ve given everything you have.

To witness a client cry tears of relief or joy and hug me while weeping as they profusely thank me for “all you’ve done” is one of the greatest forms of personal recognition I have experienced in my career. Clients stay up late to bake you cookies after the first day of trial, so you’ll have breakfast the next morning when you arrive in court; they take you to lunch each day of trial; they tell your supervising attorney how much he needs you, how truly amazing you are at your job and that he would really be in trouble if you didn’t work for him. Then there is the adrenaline rush that comes with hearing your first million dollar jury verdict read into the record, as you watch the client’s reaction and feel satisfied for a job well done. It is very rewarding.

So, even on days when I’m tired and trial preparation (and life without the 4 F’s) is beginning to get the better of me, I take comfort in knowing that the job I am performing is for that client on that day. It is their one day in court; their ultimate outcome, and I am working to help change their life. What better job (or honor) could a person have? It is for these reasons that I have developed a true passion for trial work, with all of the inherent challenges and rewards that it presents to me, as a paralegal.

What challenges are unique to your position?

I struggle most with handling a heavy caseload. I am personally responsible for about 100 personal injury and wrongful death cases at any given time. Handling 100 cases from inception through settlement and/or trial presents a variety of challenges. I have to constantly reassess my deadlines, priorities and workload to keep my cases moving forward. Drafting a demand letter or preparing a client’s discovery responses takes a significant amount of time. I will often work on a particular project for several days or even a week. If we are preparing for a jury trial, I typically focus on that case for about a month. Obviously, focusing on one file for an extended period of time can create issues with time management and workload prioritization. Nevertheless, I enjoy the personal challenge of a heavy caseload. I enjoy working at a fast pace and helping my firm’s attorneys and our clients with their legal endeavors.

Can you provide any tips for others who would like to break into this area?

If someone wants to enter the personal injury realm, it is imperative to become familiar with medical terminology, general litigation deadlines, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence and the trial rules in their state.

New paralegals should begin to build a professional network, join The Paralegal Society and read other helpful paralegal blogs. They should create a LinkedIn profile, one that is professional in nature, and join some of LinkedIn’s online paralegal forums, being cognizant to remain professional in any discussions they may join.

Attending legal seminars pertaining to personal injury and wrongful death law to become more familiar with those areas is also beneficial. Would-be personal injury paralegals should attempt to secure an internship and/or on-the-job training (even in a lesser position, such as that of a receptionist, law clerk, file clerk, secretary or runner), if possible, in order to gain valuable law firm experience. It also never hurts to brush up on typing speed and legal terminology.

What are your paralegal-related activities and accomplishments?

I am a voting member of the Indiana Paralegal Association and a member of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. I am the founder and owner of The Paralegal Society, a social forum created to educate, motivate and inspire paralegals.

I am also a professional writer. I write a litigation column for a well-known legal magazine and two popular paralegal blogs. In the past, I have written several articles for the Institute for Paralegal Education and will publish a few articles in the National Paralegal Reporter in the upcoming year. I love to write!

I currently work as a paralegal subject matter expert consultant for a leading educational institution. I am helping to overhaul portions of their paralegal program. I am also a panel member for the paralegal program at Marian University.

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