A couple of years ago, in The Before Times, the leadership of the National Docketing Association asked me to speak at its annual convention in Denver. For those unfamiliar, the NDA is a fantastic coalition of court clerks, attorneys and law firm staffers who, simply put, make sure the trains run on time in the world of litigation.* I’ve had the good fortune to work with many NDA members over the years, and I love Denver anyway, so it was an easy yes answer. Thinking I’d give my stock CLE presentation about the Hague Service Convention and the minefield that lies before lawyers and law firm staffers whose opposing parties happen to be overseas, it would be easy to put an hour-long presentation together.
“No, Aaron, not a CLE session. We want you to do the keynote.”
Um… huh? [I’m eloquent that way.]
“The keynote, stupid. The main event. The big enchilada. You know– the one where everybody is in the room?” [I paraphrase for effect. The NDA’s e-board is nothing if not professional.]
Well, that’s a different matter entirely, I thought, knowing I couldn’t get out of it. These were clients, after all.
So what in the heck am I going to talk about?
I simply considered my audience, and it dawned on me. Without skilled staff– or lawyers who pay close attention to detail– a case never even starts. Sort of like a football game doesn’t kick off until, well, the kickoff. And that requires somebody with both a monster foot and pinpoint precision.
Unless we’re talking about the Texas State Armadillos, the most maligned and ridiculed member of any gridiron squad is the kicker.** It’s occasionally some guy from the former Soviet Bloc who couldn’t make it in the Premiere League, or he’s not the right size to play any other position, but he doesn’t do much else besides kick (the great George Blanda excepted– he was a kicker and QB). He doesn’t get tackled, and he might actually hold the ball once a year.
In your average law office (does that even exist?), the docketing clerks and the paralegals don’t get much sunlight because it’s all shining on the litigators. These people are unsung because their name isn’t on the door and they never step in front of a jury.
But of the top scoring leaders in NFL history, you have to go past the top twenty to get to a non-kicker. What does that tell you about their effectiveness, their value?
Extend that analogy a bit. What does that tell you about the clerks and paralegals in your firm?
Same answer: without some very talented people at those positions, you put fewer points on the board– if the game ever starts at all. A kicker focuses on just one critical portion of the spectrum that is a football game, just like a clerk or para focus on a critical set of issues that lawyers, let’s face it… don’t.
So a little message for law firm staff: what you do… matters. It matters just as much as the research and drafting and eloquent argument that your attorneys bring to a case.
And two takeaways for attorneys here: (1) don’t get a big head– your support staff can make you or break you. (2) Remember that, if you don’t pay attention to the minutiae of procedure, you can forget about collecting a judgment and making your client whole.
* It’s actually more staffers– para’s, LA’s, clerks– than lawyers, and that’s a good thing. Staffers worry about deadlines and proper filing formats (procedural), while lawyers so frequently get hung up on the nuances of argument (substantive) that they forget timelines and font sizes– to their detriment. I happily live in both worlds– yes, I’m a lawyer, but my bailiwick is procedural.
** Good luck finding the 1987 SNL clip “We Are the Kickers.” Introduced by Walter Payton, the sketch lampooned the hell out of these guys. It was funny, it was offensive, and it’s been scrubbed from the internet.