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Paralegals 101 How to Twist Your Plotline: Info for Writers with Tina Glasneck

Hello ThrillWriters - ready to twist your plotline with a new character? How about a brilliant paralegal to help thwart your wily villain? Fiona -

I'd like to welcome fellow Sisters In Crime member Tina Glasneck. Can you tell us a bit about your career as a paralegal?

Tina -

I’ve been a criminal paralegal for almost 10 years, and I’ve worked on a multitude of criminal cases, ranging from simple possession to premeditated murder. My job has taken me to numerous jails, detention centers and correctional facilities, and I’ve had the pleasure of working under the guidance of my attorney with federal agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and United States Marshals. I graduated with a master’s in religion from Liberty University, and entered the field of law after beginning as the receptionist for a small law firm. Since then, I have moved up the ladder from receptionist, to entry level paralegal, to senior criminal paralegal, to now post-conviction paralegal. My current position requires me to look at a case which has already been in through the trial courts and determine if there are any post-conviction legal remedies available, provide supporting documentation to the attorneys to back up my stance, and then to assist in the completion of the hired task. In accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth, a paralegal can only work under the guidance of an attorney – as such, my job is to assist my attorney in providing the best service and representation to his clients. I’ve even had the pleasure of co-lecturing a continued learning seminar for paralegals. In January 2014 edition of Facts & Findings, I authored a well-received article discussing how the skill set of the paralegal has led to my crime fiction writing. Fiona -

What kinds of activities fall under your purview?

Tina -

Over the past ten years, my job responsibilities have included:

  • The interviewing of clients and witnesses

  • Obtaining additional supporting evidence

  • Taking statements

  • Speaking with law enforcement about cases

  • Collecting and viewing supplemental evidence as provided under the terms of Discovery by law enforcement or the Commonwealth

  • Reviewing supplemental evidence as located by client or other sources

  • Going out into the field to take pictures to get a sense of crime scenes in order to counter the assumed events

  • Locating specialist or experts that can validate the points of contention

  • Helping the attorney in any way necessary, including taking notes during trial.

As seen above, the position as a paralegal is a diverse one– we often serve as legal secretaries, drivers, couriers, file clerks, but the investigating of the facts of the case is where it all begins.

Fiona -

Many people have heard of paralegal work but don't have a firm grip on how a character with this job title could influence a plotline. Can you walk us through a normal day and point out along the way where the paralegal could add specific and interesting twists to the criminal trial process?

Tina - The paralegal is the assistant of an attorney. There are no normal days for paralegals, at least not for criminal paralegals.

Morning -

Although every attorney is different in their approach, usually the morning begins with a meeting, and/or long email, with the list of administrative tasks that need to be done

  • Drafting of court correspondence, motions, briefs

  • Updating of the case log, as to where a case stands

  • Checking on due dates for different filings and of course taking calls from courts, court reporters and clients.

Afternoon - The afternoons are usually when clients will come in (since it works easier for their schedules). For new clients, my tasks often include:

  • Either the sitting in on the intake process, whereby the attorney ascertains the who, what, when, why and how as to the criminal charges, including court dates, arrest date, copy of warrants and paper work, if available, if one has an attorney already, their version of events and of course, the scope of what the client may be up against.

  • Or, at times, the paralegal will do the intake alone with the client, ascertaining the above. The new client will usually paint the picture of complete innocence, since no trust has been established. So, the paralegal while taking notes, will also sift through the information, following the logic and looking for holes in the story -- I enjoy to play devil's advocate, but this is usually during the follow-up meeting. They will provide their version of events, as well. Often because the actual person facing the criminal sentence is already incarcerated, the information will come in second-handed, through a relative, girlfriend or loved one. They will provide their version, as well as why they believe their loved one is in jail -- often this is when we will hear the beginning of the conspiracy theories.

  • Once this information is gathered, the paralegal then heads to the attorney and provides him/her with an update as to the facts of the case, status of representation etc, and then the attorney will join in. The attorney will take the facts as given to him by the paralegal, as well as listening to the client, and come up with a potential course of action, and offer representation. If the deal is sealed, with the terms of representation, then the contract will be signed, and payment accepted.

  • For the client that is coming in to speak with his attorney, at this time, the paralegal is serving as note keeper, fact checker, and often a sounding board. I am given the latitude to ask questions of clients, to inquire again -- even if they have already stated 1000 times what happened, I can ask again to assure their version of events, which is very important for trial preparation. The worst thing is for a client to change his version of events on the stand!

Fiona -

Fascinating. So a paralegal is acting like a detective. . .

Tina -

The interesting parts that the paralegal can add to the criminal trial process is that they are very aware of the witnesses, their versions of events, how their testimony might match up in helping a defendant. Also, by looking at the case against a client, the paralegal is able to take a closer look at the evidence, in hopes of furthering the investigation -- making sure that the defendant's rights have not been violated, and comparing paperwork and the paper trail with that of the version of events. The paralegal will serve as a quasi-investigator, continuing to follow the breadcrumbs and helping the attorney provide the best defense possible. I am a defense criminal paralegal, so everything comes from that point of view.

Fiona -

What personality types would flourish in this job and which would flounder and why?

Tina - It takes a mentally strong person to deal with the kinds of people who need a criminal lawyer.

The best personalities that thrive in this career are the ones that are inquisitive, analytical, empathetic and have the ability to take initiative; as well as the ability to work in a fast pace environment and hold your own. A paralegal must be able to work with a team. The paralegal has to be able to work well with others in a variety of ways, and therefore able to talk to a variety of individuals, outside of those in their worldview etc. Also, there must be a sense and understanding of right and wrong, and knowing that the job of the paralegal isn't to defend anyone, but to assist the attorney in making sure that the criminal process is taking place within the boundaries of the law.

Fiona -

You were telling me how you started writing your book. Can your share your harrowing office experiences?

Tina -

My first novel, THOU SHALL NOT, came about as a result of having a disgruntled client appear at the office. She was more than threatening, and at that time there had been several episodes of people going postal.

Working in a criminal law office, you never know who is going to walk through the door. On this day in particular, my thoughts wouldn't calm down, and I was sure this client was going to shoot up the office, and I couldn't help but wonder how and if we -- those in the office -- would survive. At the time, there was only one way out of the office, and we'd have to pass by the shooter. The furniture was too heavy to move; the doors unable to be locked, and we were located on the 2nd floor of an old building, which surely meant if one was able to first lift up the window, and somehow get out of it, I'd fall straight down onto concrete slab alleyway. Writing became my therapy, a way for me to deal with the angst, a plan, a way for me to process it. It took 23 re-writes, and me having to rework my internal fears, until I was able to come to some sort of peace about it. Confronting the issue helped me to deal with it, and writing helped me process it. Fiona - Do you interact with the police, go to crime scenes and get involved in the hands on investigations? Tina - Yes, when we are investigating cases and preparing for trial, we will interact with different law enforcement agencies and officers -- depending on where the charges are pending, this will determine if we are contacting federal or state authorities.

For murder cases, we will go out to the crime scene (or where the body was recovered), in hopes of getting more of an idea of the scene, locating potential witnesses, and looking at the version of events of the client. Also, if there is video of a crime, such as the police doing surveillance, we will then head to the Commonwealth's Attorney's office in order to view it (if we are unable to get a copy of the video).

Additionally, when it comes to reviewing autopsy reports, we will head to the ME's office in order to make any specific inquiries as to what is in the report, but also if the injuries could have occurred any other way. All of this helps with trial preparation and all of this is done long after the fact. So we are not hands on in charges being presented, and the fresh crime scene, but more once the charges are filed, we are looking at the evidence, and asking questions to prepare the best defense available.

This will also include going into jails and meeting with the client, witnesses, meeting with officers to discuss items, if possible (depending on the openness of the case and the Commonwealth, the exchange of information can be forthcoming or not so much). A lot of what we are able to do will come down to what the Commonwealth or prosecution is able to communicate with us -- there is not this animosity between parties usually. No one wants an innocent man or woman to go to jail. Fiona - Have most of your clients been white collar crimes? violent crimes? drug crimes? Tina - I've dealt with mostly violent crimes and drug crimes. It is for that reason that I've come to understand that justice is composed of shades of gray -- a theme that I often address in my writing. Fiona - So let's talk about interactions with the criminal element. How intelligent and knowledgeable are these individuals? What's their demeanor? Do you feel that palming mace is necessary around the office? Tina - I guess you can say that I am surrounded by alleged criminals, but all I see are people who have potentially made life changing mistakes. Most of those that I've met are just individuals either doing petty stuff (entry level drug dealers), who were trying to do better, and didn't know how. It is more socioeconomic than anything else. There are those who are illiterate, who are just hustling to make ends meet. You do have those that think they are geniuses, and for that it is important to have a "bull shit" radar. They will all lie-- they will all try to play on your emotions, especially if you are a woman, or if they perceive you as being weak. They will try to find a hole to manipulate you to their side. Here you have to know that you are not their friends --

The violent crimes are a little more difficult to process. There, nothing is ever as simple as what you think it is. It is a maze, a mystery and everyone is lying; everyone could be a suspect. You have to take all of this into consideration, along with their particular cultures and paradigms -- there are some that believe they should never snitch; others that if they are juveniles, their silence willkeep the adult from getting in trouble. Usually when they come in, and have a seat, it will be a combination of puppy dog face hiding behind a mask of niceness. You don't discover the truth of character until after the second or third meeting. No, mace is not necessary, but you have to know when to be a bull dog, and when to be a bitch. Fiona - What is it that you wished I asked/wished people knew about paralegals? And what are some ways that a writer could twist a plot with a paralegal? Tina - Paralegals will work a case from the time that it enters into the client files and stay with it until the case is truly over. They will know almost every detail of your case . Because the paralegal knows everything, they are a good source of either seeking justice for the idea of justice of justice, even if everyone else gives up on a case -- because they know so much about it -- so in my opinion, they make great sleuths, and have access to police officers to assist them in their quest for justice and answers.

They are often overlooked, since the attorney takes the main focus, and because of this, they fall under the radar in so many ways.

Depending on their level of objectivity, and because paralegals work in a variety of firms and areas, they can use this knowledge for good or evil. In criminal litigation, the paralegal can sabotage cases, even lose pertinent information. They are not as constrained as attorneys in certain things since they are not under a licensing authority like attorneys. Because they visit prisons and facilities and send tons of legal mail, they can get involved in smuggling things into jails. The possibilities of evil are many.

Fiona -

It is a tradition on ThrillWriting that our guests tell us a harrowing story.

Tina -

I’ve combed through my memories to find a harrowing experience, which I am comfortable sharing. My life has been filled with dark and terrifying moments, whereby I’ve often danced with darkness. Yet, there is one experience that signifies the beginning of it all for me. It is the moment when my tangle with the macabre began and became a combination of beauty, pain and heartbreaking terror. At the age of seven, during late spring, I was playing outside, like all children of the 80s did. I was a tomboy, and couldn’t be bothered by staying in-doors. On this warm day in particular, the sun shone brightly from overhead. I played behind the house near a white wire fenced flower bed. Then I saw him – a lovely robin. His breast a beautiful warm orange and his wings a deep gray. He chirped, and hopped ever closer, his large eyes never leaving my face. I cupped my hands and held them out to him, wondering if he’d allow me to pet him, and like an innocent child, I hoped he would. His silky feathers tickled my hands, while his chest rose and fell. It was a simple joyful moment; a little girl with a special bird. He stayed, resting in my cupped hands, until I heard only a final chirp. He closed his eyes that once stared at me, and stopped moving. I waited in vain for him to awaken from his nap, afraid to move, but hoping to hear him chirp again. I carefully placed him in the grass. He didn’t move. Instead his thin legs stretched out too straight, and he rested on his side. Tears burned my eyes. I raced inside up the stairs to my bedroom and dumped out my pencils and crayons onto my bed -- emptying my worn gray and white pencil box. My heart thudded against my ribs, and every moment of clearing the box I thought only of him. My feet quickly stomped down the stairs and I raced outside again, back to where my friend silently lay. Lifting him up, I placed him in the box. Up until then, I'd never been to a funeral. I didn't know a lot about death, but I knew about honoring the passing of something beautiful. Crossing the two lane road behind the house, I headed to the large field where my mother had her vegetable garden. My hands dug into the dirt, until I cleared a deep and large enough space. Lowering the box, my heart hammered, and tears continued to stream down my face. I said only the words a child would utter: words of thanks to a bird that chose to spend its last moment with me. We are all broken and damaged in some way, but to experience death so close and near, that changes one, I think. My robin showed

me the juxtaposition of life and death, and the beauty of small moments. Thirty years later, I still remember the bird that died in my hands, and often think of him.

Fiona -

Wow, Tina, that was so poignant - you've left me a little heartsick.

So while I wipe away these tears, can you tell us about Thou Shall Not?

Tina -

Some things are worth killing for... A serial killer demands satisfaction for justice's failure. Bodies are piling up in Richmond, Virginia, mutilated and tagged. A serial killer metes out justice to those who have escaped it, killing according to the Ten Commandments, and Alexandria "Xandy" Caras is on the list. Two years have passed since the workplace massacre; six months since the day her charge of murder was dismissed. When innocent "fan" letters become aggressive acts, Xandy finds herself seeking help from Police Captain Victor Hawthorne. He doesn't believe in coincidences. Can he keep her safe when all signs point to her as being the killer's ultimate target? Only Xandy's death can make it all stop, silencing the deranged killer who wants more than revenge, but true repentance. Book 3 in the Spark before Dying Series, NUMBERS, is scheduled for a fall 2015 release.

Fiona -

Thanks so much for sharing your expertise, Tina.

If you want to stay in contact with Tina here are her links:

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