When I teach at writers conferences about using the law in stories, sometimes writers have no idea how helpful the law can be. One of the ways the law can really help your story is the characters. The great part about lawyers is they don’t have just one background. Where doctors have to have studied certain things, lawyers can study absolutely anything in undergraduate school. So they make great characters who can give you infinite possibilities. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you need witnesses. But many other stories need someone to see something happening to move the plot forward.
I want to talk about some other people operating in the legal system who move around enough or who have enough information that they might be useful to your stories. I’m going to tell you about five of them, but my book, The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, has loads of suggestions if you need more.
1. Bailiffs: Bailiffs keep order in the court. They see and hear everything that goes on in court, so it’s their job is to observe. As characters, they can be witnesses, blackmailers, or heroes. They are the ones who protect the judges if there is any violence, and they protect the jurors, witnesses, and lawyers as well. They frequently have to lend a hand checking lawyers in for hearings, handling evidence, calling witnesses in, and other administrative tasks. They escort the jury to and from the jury room, and stay outside the door to make sure they stay safe, sequestered, and get what they need. Maybe they overhear jurors discussing a case with a reporter. Or they witness their judge accepting a bribe. They may be the one person who can identify the guy who delivered the poisoned lunch to the jury.
2. Runners and messengers make deliveries, do copies and run errands for the attorneys. This puts them in a place where they can move around and observe activities of all your characters. Courier services will usually handle most same-day deliveries, but many larger firms have in-house people dealing with deliveries. Did the runner in your story deliver flowers to a prosecutor with whom a defense lawyer is having an affair? Did they have the package of incriminating tapes they were supposed to mail but took home and listened to instead? In-house runners or messengers will also assist with copying and other more menial tasks. These make great characters because they know all the office gossip. And maybe what evidence was destroyed.
3. Process servers hand official documents to people who don’t want them. Lawsuits, orders to testify in court or bring documents, and orders to stop doing something are items your characters won’t be happy about. Many people try to evade process servers, who have to get clever to serve those individuals. Fake flower deliveries, disguises, sneaking in the back, could be used for humor or get your process server killed. Maybe they see the character with a prostitute. Having a character who moves around lots, who is observant and who sometimes has a law enforcement background could come in handy in your story, couldn’t it?
4. A court reporter’s job is to write down every word said in court, listen to every word of every legal proceeding they cover, and write it down accurately. A missed word can be catastrophic to a trial. What if one of these reporters hates your attorney character because he yelled at her? They’re almost invisible, which makes them great witnesses. During breaks, lawyers and witnesses forget they’re even there. Court reporters hear all kinds of things they probably shouldn’t. You can have one hear a bribe during a break. Or a death threat during a deposition.
5. Paralegals assist lawyers in investigation and research, prepare documents, organize and review client files, draft court documents, interview clients and witnesses, and assist at trials. The fact that the paralegal works so closely with the attorney puts them in a unique position for your story. They may know about a bribe, malpractice, or perjury. Maybe they were instructed to shred documents in the middle of a trial. Remember the paralegal character in The Riches? She found out Doug Rich may not be who or what he said he was.
So next time you say the law can’t help with your story, think about characters you need to observe something in your story. It doesn’t have to be a murder. Characters who are in a position to observe are handy in any type of story.