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. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you need a victim. Who gets killed and why are central to your story. Now, everybody knows the first thing you do is kill all the lawyers (at least if you want to overthrow a government, as was the context of Shakespeare’s quote). So I won’t bore you with why lawyers make good murder victims. Res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself).
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 asking to be killed off. I’m going to tell you about six 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. Legal secretaries handle scheduling, prepare some court notices, draft some minor court documents, prepare letters, type (although this is becoming less of the job now that most attorneys prepare their initial drafts on their own computers), transcribe (again, more and more rare), file, deal with client and opposing counsel calls, and keep the lawyer’s office running smoothly. You could have a legal secretary who steals a trust account check and the lawyer faces disbarment, or who knows the lawyer is the perpetrator of a giant ponzi scheme. Legal secretaries know everything about the attorney, so they make great witnesses, or blackmailers. Which makes them excellent murder victims.
2. Office managers handle the business and human resources end of the law practice. If your paralegal or legal secretary character starts mouthing off to the boss, the office manager may be the one to step in. Maybe he steps in front of a two-by-four wielded by a disgruntled secretary. Office managers can also be used in your story to do the dirty work: getting rid of staff, hiding documents, moving people from department to department to keep any one person from knowing too much. Does this get them killed? Do they embezzle the trust money? They will probably have passwords and access to the firm’s accounts. Frequently seen in larger firms, this role is now being handled in midsize and smaller firms by someone trained in either accounting or administration. Could your office manager character be quietly figuring out how to retire? Could she be undercover trying to bring in a crooked attorney? Or did she fail to end up in witness protection before the mobster client whacked her?
3. Notaries witness and put their seal on signatures to verify that they obtained good identification from the person signing and that the signature is true, and certify copies of documents as being true copies. They can give oaths and perform wedding ceremonies. Banks, law firms, and copy centers frequently have staff notaries. Did your dishonest notary put a piece of property in their own name? Did they notarize a document with lots of white space and turn it into a will in their favor? Or, do they know uncover a forgery? Notaries can be witnesses to all kinds of fraud in your stories. They could be on the run, in witness protection, or a murder victim.
Unscrupulous notaries can use the Spanish translation, “notario” to bilk unsuspecting immigrants. The term notario can refer to a lawyer or someone of similar stature in some countries. Many notarios engage in the unauthorized practice of law here in the U.S. This comes up frequently in immigration fraud scams. Is your character an illegal immigrant who thought they were legal? Did the notario’s scam get them deported? Might be a motive for murder.
4. The judicial assistant, or JA, handles scheduling of hearings, trials, and other court proceedings. They usually handle and mark the evidence when it is admitted. In other words, they are the judge’s right arm. The demeanor of a judicial assistant is usually a good reflection of the demeanor of the judge. Dealing with a great JA is one of the great pleasures of legal secretaries, paralegals and lawyers. A nasty or incompetent JA can make legal life miserable. Your characters can show up to hearings that aren’t on the calendar, sit in the courtroom for hours as proceedings run late, have courtesy copies of motions and cases that were sent to the judge well in advance suddenly lost, and other JA-caused tribulations. Could drive anyone over the brink, couldn’t it? The JA could also witness bribery, threats, or jury tampering, which means they could blackmail a lawyer or judge. We know what happens to blackmailers and people who know too much, don’t we?
5. Process servers hand court documents to people who don’t want them. Lawsuits, orders to testify in court or bring documents, or orders to stop doing something, your characters won’t be happy to see a process server. Many people try to evade process servers, who have to get clever to serve those individuals. Fake pizza deliveries, exterminators, pulling fire alarms, could be used to humorous advantage in a story. Or get your process server killed. Most people realize that the process server is just doing their job. The likely reaction of your character served with a suit is to thank the process server. Boring, but accurate. But maybe they see the character with a mistress. Many process servers are also private investigators, and some have law enforcement backgrounds. Having a character who moves around lots, who is observant, and who knows something about the law could come in handy in all kinds of creative ways, couldn’t it? Or do they know too much?
6. 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 be able to write it down accurately. A missed word can be catastrophic to a trial. Imagine the deposition transcript in your story with an omitted “not” or “no.” Or with the wrong speaker listed. What if a court reporter hates your attorney character because he broke up with her? She might decide to change the words. Court reporters are almost invisible. During breaks, lawyers and witnesses forget they’re even there, so court reporters hear all kinds of things they probably shouldn’t. You can have one hear a death threat or blackmail. If someone prone to murderous rage suddenly realizes the court reporter was present, who knows what might happen?
Some others who might be in a position to blackmail or witness something they shouldn’t have seen are bailiffs, runners/messengers, and paralegals. We all know that the motives for murder can be complex or simple, funny or horrible. Murder mystery writers need to choose their victims carefully.
Hopefully now you have some more ideas on who your murderer needs to knock off. The rest, my friends, is up to you. Happy writing!