Working As a Paralegal in Personal Injury/Wrongful Death

An Interview With a Practicing Paralegal

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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, shares her experiences working in the areas of personal injury and wrongful death litigation.

How Long Have You Been a Paralegal?

I've worked as a paralegal for over 14 years. I started in the legal field with no experience or legal education.

What Is Your Educational Background?

I earned my associate’s degree in paralegal studies from Ivy Tech Community College while working part-time at a law firm. Then I worked toward my bachelor’s degree in business management from Marian University.

What Are Your Daily Responsibilities?

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

On any given day, my duties might include:

  • Interviewing potential clients
  • Interacting with existing clients, attorneys, and court staff
  • Drafting letters and pleadings
  • Reviewing medical records
  • Preparing medical chronologies
  • Drafting demand letters, and witness and exhibit lists
  • Preparing and compiling discovery responses
  • Opening and organizing files
  • Handling 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.

What Do You Enjoy Most About Personal Injury Law?

I like 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 times of need is truly rewarding for me.

I also enjoy trial work. I never had the opportunity to participate in trials until I came to this firm. Trial preparation isn't 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 and even weeks. But the rewards are so personally and professionally gratifying that it makes every moment absolutely worth it.

What Does Preparing for a 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 is left in that courtroom. You dedicate countless hours, days, weeks, and weekends of your life to a cause—to a client—and it's exhilarating to stand in the courtroom and hear a jury verdict read aloud after you’ve given everything you have.

One of the greatest forms of personal recognition I've experienced in my career is witnessing clients cry tears of relief or joy and hug me as they profusely thank me for “all you’ve done.” 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's 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's very rewarding.

I take comfort in knowing that the job I'm performing is for that client on that day, even on days when I’m tired and trial preparation is beginning to get the better of me. It's her one day in court, her ultimate outcome, and I'm working to help change her life. What ​better job or honor could a person have?

What Challenges Are Unique to Your Position?

I struggle most with handling a heavy caseload. I'm personally responsible for about 100 personal injury and wrongful death cases from inception through settlement and/or trial, and this presents a variety of challenges.

I have to constantly reassess my deadlines, my priorities, and my 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'll often work on a particular project for several days or even a week. I typically focus on a case for about a month when we're preparing for a jury trial.

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 Tips for Others?

It's 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 your state.

New paralegals should begin by building a professional network. Join The Paralegal Society and read other helpful paralegal blogs. Create a LinkedIn profile, one that's professional in nature, and join some of LinkedIn’s online paralegal forums. Remain professional in any discussions you might join.

Attend legal seminars pertaining to personal injury and wrongful death law to become more familiar with these areas. Would-be personal injury paralegals should attempt to secure an internship or other on-the-job training, even if it's in a lesser position, such as receptionist, file clerk, secretary, or runner. You'll gain valuable law firm experience.

It also never hurts to brush up on your typing speed and legal terminology.

What Are Your Related Activities & Accomplishments?

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

I'm also a professional writer. I write a litigation column for a well-known legal magazine and two popular paralegal blogs. I've written several articles for the Institute for Paralegal Education and the National Paralegal Reporter.

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

A 2019 Update

Jamie Collins currently writes the litigation column "KNOW Business" for KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals. She's also a guest blogger for The Estrin Report. She sits on the Peer Review Board for the Institute for Paralegal Education.