These are complex times to be a paralegal or a legal assistant trying to help lawyers get a case to trial. When I asked bailiffs to share their pet peeves with me, I was struck by the diverse expectations and practices of the 53 different chambers in King County Superior Court. My guess is that we are still in a period of transition from paper and snail mail to electronic working papers and email. For the legal assistant, however, traps for the unwary seem to be set everywhere.
My takeaway after considering all the comments I received is that the first question you or your assistant should ask when your case is assigned to a judge or when a case is transferred to a new judge should be about how chambers staff prefer to communicate with counsel. For example, does the judge want electronic working copies? Does the judge prefer paper only? How do chambers feel about emailed working copies that the court has to print out? Does the bailiff routinely email all counsel either scanned copies of paper orders or orders signed electronically by the judge? Or does the bailiff prefer that envelopes be provided, and what will happen if no envelopes are provided?
There are judges on our court champing at the bit to get rid of envelopes. And yet there are other chambers that will only send a courtesy copy of an order to lawyers for whom envelopes are provided. What's a legal assistant to do? Remember that if you submit no envelopes to chambers that only use the U.S. Mail, then you have to look on ECR to see the signed order. If you submit only one envelope, then you are responsible for sending a copy of the signed order to the other side.
Why is there so much variation? It has to do with the preferences of the judge and, to an extent, the preferences of the bailiff. I will admit to being a Luddite who does much preparation at my son's piano lessons and sports practices. The last thing I want to do is to be tied to a computer to e-file orders. Other judges, however, never want to haul a box of pleadings home again. They love tinkering with orders on the screen, hitting send and knowing their order is instantaneously filed. Bailiffs, too, have varying comfort levels with technology. Like every other institution, we are in transition. But it's a transition that puts a burden on your office staff and you need to help them navigate our various practices.
To be sure, many of the bailiffs' comments hit universal themes that apply regardless of the medium of communication. For example, one wise bailiff noted: "Though it may seem counterintuitive, a bailiff should be friendly and courteous to attorneys and staff, but he should never be helpful. A bailiff must guard the court's neutrality. It cannot be the responsibility of chambers staff to train your office staff. Your staff asking chambers staff for advice or assistance on any procedural matter arising from litigation is a request for the court's ex parte assistance to one party - yours. The court's assistance would be inappropriate and potentially unethical."
A common theme among the suggestions from our bailiffs is the need for attorneys to train their office staff, to show them where to find the court rules (especially the local rules), and to create an environment in which staff feel more comfortable asking questions of their supervising attorney than they do chambers staff. Your staff should know when motions require a hearing date for argument or when to note a hearing without argument in compliance with the local rules. They should not ask the bailiff.
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