Paralegals – The Linchpin to the Defense Team’s Discovery Review Process

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Whether a federal criminal defense attorney is a sole practitioner, part of a firm or in a Federal Public or Community Defender Office, they are often assigned to a case on their own. In many situations, that is manageable because there is not a lot of information to organize, the client can help to review the discovery produced by the government or the strategy involves a plea. However, as cases continue to grow in size and complexity, it’s helpful to have paralegal assistance. A paralegal can support attorneys in many ways in a case, ranging from assisting with client contact to aiding attorneys at hearings and trial, but it is with discovery management that paralegals are increasingly important in today’s legal world. They can help the defense team get the work done faster and make the overall process more cost effective. A paralegal can contribute when an attorney is trying to understand the scope of the discovery and design a strategy to access and review the files more efficiently, organize everything, and ultimately search and review the discovery and case materials in a meaningful way.

Unique challenges that federal criminal defense practitioners face include increasing numbers of proprietary formats that standard software cannot open, large volumes of information that need to be sifted through and the potential lack of technology resources. All of these challenges make having human resources available even more important.

Fortunately, even sole practitioners need not fly solo. They can have paralegals as permanent members of their team or hire them specifically for a case.

While some paralegals have experience working on particular types of cases and are proficient in using certain software tools, some are new to the field and eager to learn. The type of paralegal that is the best fit for a criminal defense practice or for a case depends on the attorney’s working style, the type and complexity of the discovery involved, the timeline of the case, and the long-term goals to be met by adding a member to the team. Below are some questions an attorney should consider when thinking about hiring a paralegal.

  1. Do I need them to understand how to manage a case as soon as they walk in the door?
  2. What litigation support software am I using that I want them to be familiar with and have experience using?
  3. Do I want someone who knows about programs than can help me better manage discovery (and perhaps know more than I do on the topic)?
  4. Do I need someone experienced with using online document review databases?
  5. Do I need someone who understands how to search large sets of discovery using metadata filters (e.g. date ranges, file types, authors, and recipients, etc.) combined with keywords to help me identify the most relevant documents in the discovery?
  6. Do I need someone experience creating complex Boolean searches for culling large data sets into more manageable sets of discovery to review?
  7. Have they previously worked in my district on federal cases ?
    1. If not, are they willing to learn about the types of cases and the types of discovery generated here and become familiar with the unique nature of my district?
  8. Have they worked on the types of cases to which I am typically appointed?

If you are considering hiring a paralegal for a particular case, it is crucial that they have a suitable skillset for it. They should know how to leverage outside resources to make the overall discovery review process more efficient. For example, they may recommend using a third-party-vendors to process and host e-Discovery. This is reasonable and often times preferred, but they should not be billing time to have others do the work you expect from them.

The National Litigation Support Team (NLST) is a resource not only for CJA panel attorneys, but for private paralegals who assist panel attorneys as well. The NLST can answer questions and provide strategies about best practices when it comes to managing particular formats of discovery, demonstrating how a third party vendor can assist in particular situations, introducing your paralegal to  software available to panel members and provide one-on-one training on those tools, so that they can provide you with the best possible support.

Adding a paralegal to your practice, or to your team, for a single case can be the difference between discovery being left unreviewed due to shortage of time or lack of technology and being able to focus on telling your client’s story. Paralegals should be vetted, and you should have a clear understanding of their familiarity and experience with technology, the types of cases they have worked on and their willingness to learn new platforms and new ways of searching, reviewing, and managing information. When you find the paralegal that is a good fit for your practice, they will truly become the linchpin to your team’s discovery review process.