TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Oct 1, 2015

Journal Issue Date: Oct 2015

Journal Name: October 2015 - Vol. 51, No. 10

In the 1997 motion picture, The Rainmaker, the diminutive Danny DeVito played Deck Shifflet, a “para-lawyer.”

Created by the noted lawyer/best-selling writer John Grisham, Shifflet was a law school graduate who never passed the Bar exam, having flunked it six times.

Shifflet did not let his absence of a law license prevent him from practicing law under the self-proclaimed title “para-lawyer.” I’m not quite sure what a “para-lawyer” is. It sounds like a lawyer who jumps out of an airplane. Now that I think about it, isn’t a para-lawyer actually two lawyers, like a paradox is a couple of doctors?

For decades, we lawyers (particularly trial lawyers) have had outstanding assistants who are not in fact lawyers.

The first such group of assistants were “Private Eyes” or “Private Investigators.” The classic lawyer’s private eye was the great Paul Drake, Perry Mason’s right-hand man who, along with Perry’s right-hand woman, Della Street, helped Perry win cases for his innocent clients.

Perry’s clients were always charged with murders they had not committed. Being the greatest criminal defense lawyer of all time, Perry did not believe in the “reasonable doubt” defense. None of that Johnnie Cochran if-it-doesn’t-fit-you-must-acquit defense for Perry. No, Perry would prove his client’s innocence by unveiling the real killer right in the courtroom. (Inexplicably, the real killer always attended the trial and sat in the back of the courtroom.)

More often than not, it was Paul Drake, the world’s greatest private investigator, who found the real killer for Perry.

Private eyes or private investigators were ultimately replaced by paralegals. In fact, Della Street was the forerunner of the modern paralegal. Contrary to popular belief, Della was not Perry’s secretary. His secretary was named Gertie. Della was a paralegal.

Most good trial lawyers I know are always assisted in pre-trial work and at trial by one or more paralegals. They are now sometimes referred to as “litigation support teams.” Now that I think about it, Perry and Della and Paul were the original “litigation support team.”

But John Grisham’s character in The Rainmaker, Deck Shifflet, was not a private eye, a private investigator, or a paralegal. As a “para-lawyer,” he was basically practicing law without a license, assisting Rudy Baylor, played by Matt Damon, a Memphis State Law School grad who passed the Bar and therefore actually had a license to practice law.

And as usually happens in Grisham novels and the film versions thereof, Rudy and Deck were the good guys, and therefore they defeated the bad guy insurance lawyer (played by Jon Voight), with Deck, the para-lawyer, making court appearances alongside Rudy despite Deck’s lack of a law license.

It was pure Hollywood and Grisham fiction at its best. But now, my fellow real lawyers, hold on to your law license! Para-lawyers may soon appear not just on the movie screen or in Grisham novels, but as an actual part of our legal profession.

Earlier this year the State of Washington created a new class of legal professionals called “limited licensed legal technicians.” They are in effect the nurse practitioners of the legal profession.

They are in fact, para-lawyers. Rather than spending seven years of their lives attending first college and then law school and then sitting through a multi-state bar exam, the “limited licensed legal technicians” can take a few courses at a community college and then sit for an examination to become an official Washington State para-lawyer.

They must first do an apprenticeship under a licensed lawyer for 3,000 hours, or approximately one year. After that, these “para-lawyers” can actually hang up their shingles and conduct a limited law practice on their own, helping clients prepare court documents, do legal research, and significantly, giving legal advice just as we lawyers do in our role as counselors.

The State of California is now studying the Washington model and may soon create para-lawyers in that state as well. After all, it was Hollywood where para-lawyers got started in the first place.

At this time, I do not know of any efforts to bring para-lawyers to the Volunteer State. However, I would not be at all surprised to see this happen. Please remember that Deck Shifflet was from Memphis. He’s no doubt ready to break away from Rudy Baylor and set up his own office near Graceland.

Fortunately for me, if para-lawyers invade Tennessee, it will come at the end of my career as a licensed lawyer.

Over the next few years as I begin to fade into the legal sunset, I will continue to play the role I have played now for nearly 40 years. I’ll be one of those bad-guy lawyers you read about in the Grisham novels — and watch para-lawyer Danny DeVito and Matt Damon beat me in a fictional Memphis courtroom filmed in Hollywood.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.