The Role of a Criminal Law Paralegal

To start off, I should make a confession. I have been in the legal field for over 30 years and a paralegal going on eight years. In those years, I have only worked on civil cases, and that was my niche. Then, an opportunity came along to work for the County Public Defender’s Office, defending people in misdemeanor, felony, and now the only paralegal in the office on capital cases. Truth be told, I never thought I would make that transition. But three years into the field and I find it was the BEST career decision I have made!  

So, what are the things we do that get YOU thinking this could be the best career decision you make as a Criminal Law Paralegal? *Caveat – there is so much information about what Criminal Law Paralegals do, I wish I could relay to you everything Perhaps I could share more in-depth details at another time. The following is a broad description of what a Criminal Paralegal does (whether defense or prosecution).

The typical criminal case includes:

  1. Arrest
  2. Arraignment
  3. Plea negotiations
  4. Right to a speedy trial
  5. Right to a jury trial
  6. Trial
  7. Sentencing/Judgment
  8. Appeal

The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant committed the crime.

Paralegal to the Prosecution

The paralegal may be asked to prepare disclosure statements, which list all your witnesses, exhibits, and any other pertinent information to the prosecution of a defendant. I feel it would be wise that when you send a bundle of exhibits that they are bates stamped. A criminal proceeding can rack up a lot of paperwork, and it is more efficient to start off bates stamping your documents. Make sure you gather all the appropriate police reports, including alcohol/drug testing experts named in the reports, photographs, cell phone information, etc. that is in the custody of the officers.

If you have an investigator, keep in contact with him or her to make sure you are current with all the documents critical to your case. You will need to appropriately redact and send these documents to defense counsel. Keep in mind this is an ongoing task, and anything not disclosed won’t be admitted at trial.

Paralegal to the Defense

A quick checklist of what the defense Paralegal does is (my job description), among other things:

  • Review incoming disclosure statements and breakdown the appropriate documents (i.e., police reports, the complaint, etc.);
  • Assist in initiating and engaging in criminal prosecutions;
  • Investigating and analyzing facts;
  • Planning trial strategy;
  • Consult with parties, experts, and lay witnesses;
  • Prepare criminal trials;
  • Legal research and drafts, reviews and prepares legal documents, including motions, petitions, opinions, demands, and disclosures;
  • Handle large volumes of cases;
  • Prepare initial documents (Notice of Appeal) for the appeal to the courts of appeals, and post-conviction relief proceedings.

Conflict Checks

Of course, conflict checks are really important in every case. Not only should you confirm no conflict with a defendant, but do not forget about the co-defendant(s) as well. In my office, we have had several cases we had to give to contract attorneys because of conflicts with co-defendants.

paralegal's role in criminal practice

Of course, conflict checks are really important in every case. Not only should you confirm no conflict with a defendant, but do not forget about the co-defendant(s) as well. In my office, we have had several cases we had to give to contract attorneys because of conflicts with co-defendants.

Communicate with Clients

Keeping open communication with the client is of utmost importance for the Criminal Law Paralegal. The better communication you have with them, the more open they will be and share information that is pertinent to their case with you. Know this is an undesirable time for them so remember that they may have an outburst with you, but it’s not personal. I struggle with clients that yell – especially when your attorney doesn’t get back to them.

          Working for the Public Defender’s Office (at least in my office), talking to clients is not part of a paralegal’s job responsibility. However, that may be different in your office.

Disclosure Statements

Just like working with the prosecution, defense paralegals may be asked to prepare disclosure statements. Disclosure statements contain information about your witnesses, exhibits, and any information and documents, photos, etc. that will help your client’s case will need to be disclosed. Again, if you do not disclose a particular document, it is not admissible, either at a hearing or at trial.

Research

Whether your office uses Westlaw, LexisNexis, or any other electronic research platform, it is important that a Criminal Law Paralegal knows how to research. Most of these sites offer free learning. Take advantage of it.

Write Motions (Evidentiary Motions)

Before trial, you may be asked to prepare certain motions. The motion you will write or review the most is a Motion to Suppress. This is when your attorney wants to suppress some evidence or interview that he or she feels was taken unlawfully. Once a motion to suppress is filed, the State can respond, and then your attorney will file a Reply. At any time during this process, your attorney may have you draft the document(s) or perform some research.

          Among other motions are motions to continue; motions to dismiss; motions in limine (which is meant to exclude certain evidence); Daubert motions (excluding the testimony of experts); motion for a Torrez Hearing (when your client wants a new attorney), to name a few. Drafting these documents is a great learning ground for motion practice and writing.

Memorandums

Preparing legal memorandums is one of my favorite things to do. Remember the IRAC rules (Issue, Rules Analysis and Conclusion)? After I finished researching, I prepare a legal memorandum (using the IRAC rules) for my attorneys detailing my results. Taking time to prepare a memorandum will surely leave an impression on your attorney. It also shows that you know what you’re talking about and perhaps alert the attorney of something they didn’t know.

criminal law paralegal

Potential Juror List

In some jurisdictions, about a week before trial, you can request a copy of the potential juror list. This cuts down on the amount of time for Voir Dire questioning. I request the list from the Jury Consultant and perform a conflict check on all the jurors on the list. If there are any conflicts of interest, then I prepare a memorandum to the attorney with the name and possible problem.

When the final pretrial conference occurs, the attorneys are ready to strike jurors beforehand. In some jurisdictions (like Arizona), the jurors are sent questions to answer. When the answered questionnaire is completed, the Judicial Assistant usually sends that to counsel. The Criminal Law Paralegal reviews their answers and determines if there is a potential problem. The attorney will make the decision whether or not to strike that particular juror. It is a tedious process, but I feel we are doing an important service to our attorneys – they have enough on their plate with trial preparation.

Jury Instructions

Another duty of the paralegal (either Prosecutor or Defense) is to prepare the jury instructions and Voir Dire questions. You will need to be familiar with the statutory jury instructions in your state. Once you are, and you have reviewed the statutory charges, it is pretty much copied and pasted into a pleading.

Witness and Exhibit List

This document is ongoing up until trial. It most likely will need to be updated on a continuing basis. If you do not file an exhibit list, you will be precluded from presenting any exhibits. The same goes for the witness list. You will not be able to present any witnesses at trial that are not listed.

Trial Notebooks

Because most offices are paperless, you may need to prepare an electronic trial notebook. Knowledge of Adobe is very helpful. Confirm you and your attorney are on the same page when it comes to what sections he or she requires.

Jury Trials

You may be asked to attend jury trials. In our office, paralegals attend only the jury selection. Although I am working on changing that and proposing we attend the whole trial. Having a paralegal beside the attorney helps not only the attorney but also calms down the client. It helps that we can observe the jury – how are they reacting – and relay our “lay” opinion to the attorneys. I love being in trials and hope to be more involved.

          After trial, if your client feels he should appeal the verdict due to some error, the Criminal Law Paralegal can file a Notice of Appeal with your respective appellate court.

Knowing the Rules of Evidence

One more thing I would say is key for the Criminal Law Paralegal (and all litigation paralegals!) is to know your local rules and statutes. It is important in criminal cases no matter which side you are on.  If you are able to, I suggest you take an Evidence class or review the Federal and State Rules to refresh your memory. I refer to these on a regular basis.

          The above is just a taste of what you could do as a Criminal Law Paralegal. So, whether you decide on a position with a Prosecutor or a defense firm, you will have an opportunity to help those in trouble start a new life or help victims of crimes get the peace they need. Either way, being a Criminal Law Paralegal is a rewarding and difficult career, but one which I am thankful for every day.

Meet the Author

paralegal's role in criminal practice

Mary Katherine Mayer is a NALA Advanced Certified Paralegal in Criminal Litigation and the Recording Secretary for the Arizona Paralegal Association. She works for the Yavapai County Public Defender’s Office in Prescott, Arizona, and has worked in the legal field for over 30 years. She is a member of NALA.

Comments

  • Gregory Welch July 30, 2022 at 8:09 am Reply

    Very insightful. I appreciate this. Direct to the point.

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