America has a fascination with courtroom dramas. Dozens of TV shows and hundreds of movies have been based on the legal profession. Hollywood has even made musicals with courtroom scenes! Real courtroom dramas receive nearly constant attention on the news networks, and if CNN’s coverage of every detail in a trial isn’t enough, there’s are always continuous access to Law and Order reruns on numerous channels and streaming devices.

You may not have noticed, but one thing’s missing from most of these legal dramas: the behind-the-scenes work of the paralegals (or legal assistants as they’re sometimes called). In the media, lawyers give flawless and impassioned pleas to the jury, and the force of their arguments turns the case, or, under relentless cross-examination, the defendant suddenly admits to the crime. In reality, these events rarely happen — cases are won and lost based on what takes place outside of the courtroom even before the trial.

The vast majority of the work for a civil or criminal trial is done before the trial begins, and after a trial starts there are usually very few surprises. But just as the networks choose to broadcast the Olympics, but not the four years of training in between, so the focus of dramas is on the action in the courtroom and not all the investigation, interviewing, writing, and research that builds the case. So, when you’re watching TV dramas , you’ll usually see the lawyers in the courtroom, but not the paralegals whose research ...

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