I spent several years of my life doing paralegal work.
Note that I do not say, “I was a paralegal,” as that is something you need a certificate to be, and I’m sure that there are paralegal enforcers who would visit me in the middle of the night and pummel me with binders if I claimed to be one without the proper certificate. But I did the work and got paid for it, and that has to count for something.
It was an interesting job, really – just the sort of thing for a graduate student in liberal arts to do to keep body and soul together during the summers or between degrees. It was indoor work, it was mostly analysis of some kind, and it required very little heavy lifting. Plus you got to read things, especially down near the bottom, where I was.
I was a temp – the bottom of the legal barrel – and mostly what the various firms who hired me on wanted me to do was code documents. In normal English, what that meant was that they needed me to read through stacks of documents – some from their side, some turned over by the other side – and extract from them whatever information was deemed relevant. This information would then be assembled into a database, so that at the appropriate moment the lawyers in charge could dramatically pull out the correct document, wave it in front of judge, jury and opposing counsel, and declare, “Aha! But that is not what this says, is it?!?” and then the case would be won and we’d get some kind of bonus.
Or, more likely, the data miners who were also working for the lawyers could take all that information that we’d found and craft it into something that looked supportive of whatever small point the lawyers were trying to make, on the theory that all those small points would add up to a larger settlement.
To my knowledge, none of the big cases I ever worked on actually went to trial.
There was a mass-tort disaster litigation case that – as a former firefighter – was utterly fascinating as long as you didn’t think too much about how many people had died. I kept the NFPA report on the fire when they let us go. Hey – they didn’t need it anymore, and it was a public document anyway.
There was a protracted asbestos case. I never did figure out which side we were working on – the lawyers in charge were so many levels above us that they might as well have been communicating to us via burning bushes when they set policy for us – but they treated us well.
There was a corporate bankruptcy case that employed nearly five times the total number of document coders that I’d ever worked with up to that point, total. We took up two entire floors of a rather expensive high-rise building, and the photocopier staff (really, they had an entire staff just to make copies) worked three shifts a day. If they’d spent that kind of money making better decisions earlier, they wouldn’t have needed to spend that kind of money on us.
And so on.
Of all of them, I liked the asbestos case best. On all the other cases I had to read a wide variety of documents – letters, memos, accounting spreadsheets, receipts, all the usual detritus of corporate life. But for the asbestos case, they only asked us to read depositions.
For those of you not familiar with these things, depositions are where a witness is placed in a room between opposing lawyers and eaten alive.
What actually happens is that the lawyers use this time to get all the background information that nobody has time to extract in court, and – with any luck – trip the witness into saying something useful to their side. So there’s a lot of talk from the witness (the “deponent,” in the lingo – this is the person who is being “deposed” here, a verb that always made me think they were some kind of banana republic strongman fleeing a coup), and a lot of jockeying and objecting from the attorneys. It can get pretty snarly at times. At other times it’s just a game where both sides know what the other is going to do and how they will respond, so there’s a certain “we’ll take this as read and move on to the next gambit” feel about it, especially if the lawyers have worked together before.
The thing about depositions is that they are pretty low-status legal work and nobody really likes doing them, so it usually falls to the newbie lawyers, the ones that haven’t quite learned how to shut people down yet, to handle them. And here they are, asking these thousand-year-old men to tell them stories about their glory years, stories their own families have heard so often that they refuse to hear them again.
Some of these depositions went on for volumes.
We used to copy and pass around the best snippets. Bear in mind that all of these are from actual legal documents, and that I’ve seen them with my own two eyes.
Q. Are you married?
A. No, sir. Divorced.
Q. Have you ever been married?
Q. Can you tell me a little bit more about this drive-in job that you had during high school? ... Do you think you were exposed to any kind of materials that contained asbestos on that job?
A. Not to my knowledge.
[Attorney]: Just the popcorn.
Q. Do you remember who you went to work for next?
A. I believe it was … at the bomb plant.
Q. Tell the jury what the bomb plant is?
A. Where they make those things that will kill you.
Q. What did [he] do for a living?
A. He was a pipefitter.
Q. You are aware that he also has a similar lawsuit pending relating to asbestos exposure?
A. I don't know. He's been dead since 1972.
A. I went to work for [the] Dairy.
A. Dairy, yeah.
Q. What did you do for [the] Dairy?
A. I was a manager.
Q. ... You wouldn't have been exposed to any asbestos?
A. Oh, no, no. Hamburgers.
Q. Do you still take a pill for antacid?
A. When I have to on occasion, when I eat too much chili or too many hot dogs or too many onions, yeah.
Q. How often do you do that?
A. As often as the wife puts it on the table, I guess.
Q. No, did the removal of the pipecovering create dust?
Q. And you breathed in that dust?
[Attorney 1]: Objection, calls for speculation.
[Attorney 2]: Breathing?
Q. When did you first work with [John Doe]?
[Attorney 1]: I believe Mr. [Doe] has passed away.
[Attorney 2]: Do you want to delete him from the list?
[Attorney 1]: He's dead. I can't bring him back.
Q. I understand a lot of these plants employed insulators. What I want to know is whether or not these insulators were actually performing their trade while you were there in 1972?
A. Yes. I wouldn't hardly think they would let them stand around.
Q. What do you do for fun? What do you enjoy doing?
A. What do I enjoy doing? Well, my wife says I like to do nothing slow. I don't know what that means.
[Attorney 1]: Are you instructing him not to answer?
[Attorney 2]: No, I'm not. I'm making an objection. It's redundant, oppressive, violates the rules. But, I'll allow him to answer the blinking question.
[Attorney 1]: Well, I'm going to lodge a continuing objection here to Counsel's taking the page out, holding it how he wants to hold it, pointing to different sections of the page that he wants to point to, directing his client's attention to something in a suggestive way. I'm going to object to that. I think the client can page through the book by himself and answer the questions posed to him by counsel without the dog and pony show being put on by [Attorney 2].
[Attorney 2]: Thanks, Jerry. You're always pretty colorful in your objections.
Q. How old is your twin brother?
Q. What were you doing at the … mill?
A. The biggest thing I done was hide from the boss. They had to have 50 men on the job and I was one of them. We didn't do nothing.
Q. When did he show you the [picture] book?
A. Several months ago.
Q. What kind of book was it?
A. Just a book, you opened it like that (indicating).
Q. I understand how books work. But what was in the book?
[Attorney 1]: ...So, I think all --
[Attorney 2]: I didn't say there was.
[Attorney 1]: Well, I mean, you're casting doubt upon everybody's ethics here about why not ask this guy questions along those lines.
[Attorney 1]: Everybody is obviously hiding. There's nothing improper about it. You don't have to ask it. If I ask it --
[Attorney 2]: We're all just --
[Attorney 1]: --don't tell me there's --
[Attorney 2]: --arguing for ourselves.
[Attorney 1]: --any impropriety in --
The Reporter: One at a time!
Q. Your answer lists you as a journeyman with [John Doe]. Were you two the only ones that were there?
A. That was probably it.
The Reporter: He is [John Doe].
(Informal discussion held off the record)
Q. Additionally, all your responses have to be out loud so the court reporter can take them down. She can't take down a gesture, do you understand, sir?
Q. You can't. Do you have a hearing problem?
A. No, not really. You're just not talking loud enough.
Q. I have a speaking problem, then.
A. That's exactly right.
Q. Sir, if you were to pass away, say, in the middle of this deposition from boredom, --would your wife receive the pension that you get from -- who do you get if from?