A Formula for Success
A paralegal-attorney team combines
trust and technology in a successful litigation practice.
By Ari Kaplan
July/August 2005 Issue
Every once in a while, the legal
profession produces a relationship stronger than a winning case, one
built on years of trust and loyalty. At a small construction litigation
firm, the Law Offices of William M. Jeter in Memphis, Tenn., Bill Jeter,
the principal attorney, and Kathy Burnett, the lead paralegal, enjoy
that unique collaboration in a field marked by attrition and
After more than a decade of trusting
each other, valuing the skills each brings to bear and enjoying their
work, Jeter and Burnett have created a successful partnership, both
personally and professionally. Having some of the best technology in
town has not hurt either.
Before becoming a paralegal, Burnett worked for a daily
newspaper and also with a public relations firm where her bachelor’s
degree in journalism and minor in English from the University of
Southern Mississippi came into play. It was only after she started
temping at a law firm when her daughter was young that she became
involved with the law — and she never looked back. Her optimism and
strong performance earned her a permanent full-time paralegal position
at Thomason Hendrix Harvey Johnson & Mitchell in Memphis.
After working at Thomason Hendrix for
about eight years, one of Jeter’s former secretaries told Burnett that
Jeter was looking for a paralegal to work with him at Glassman Jeter
Edwards & Wade, also based in Memphis. “I had not been looking for a
job, but I thought ‘why not?’” Burnett said. Eleven years later “it
turned out to be the best decision I have ever made in my professional
career,” she said. Hiring her for her confident attitude, Jeter calls
the decision the “best money I ever spent.”
Six years after hiring Burnett, Jeter, a
1976 graduate of Memphis State University and married father of two, was
in search of a change in his work environment, and decided to open his
own firm. “I had several opportunities that came to pass that made me
realize it was the right time to go out on my own, and I have never
regretted it for one second,” Jeter said.
The duo left Glassman Jeter, where Jeter
had practiced law for 26 years, and moved into their current offices on
the banks of the Mississippi River. Burnett was only one of six people
Jeter told he was leaving his former firm. In fact, Burnett requested a
higher salary when she moved with Jeter to his own firm, and he agreed
to personally make up the difference. “I have never had even a remote
thought of questioning my selection of her originally or in asking her
to move with me,” he said.
Jeter focuses on construction law. He has defended large
engineering firms, solo engineers, architects, construction companies
and aggrieved homeowners with construction defects or mold issues. The
firm also handles insurance defense matters including auto accidents,
slip-and-fall cases, and other individual and commercial liability
On the legal side, Burnett responds to
all discovery, initial disclosures and related materials, and reviews
files to make sure they are updated. As the head paralegal, she is in
constant contact with the firm’s clients.
In an office with three attorneys (one
of whom works from home), one secretary, one full-time clerk who also
works as a receptionist and a college student who works as a clerk and
runner, Burnett is responsible for many administrative duties as well.
She screens and hires staff and essentially is the human resources
manager. According to Jeter, this has saved the firm a great deal of
time and money.
When Jeter opened his doors for business in September 2000,
he and Burnett realized that with his growing practice and the varied
case files, the firm needed better organization and superior technology.
The firm initially hired an outside consultant, and selected Gavel &
Gown’s Amicus Attorney V as the core component of the firm’s network.
For a small firm, the Law Offices of
William M. Jeter has big technology. Its operating system is Windows NT
with a Dell PowerEdge server and a telephone/fax server making each
desktop capable of sending faxes through the T1 line. Everyone in the
office has a 21-inch monitor and a high-speed laser printer at his or
her desk. In addition, Burnett has a high-speed flatbed scanner in her
office and uses a Dell notebook computer for trial presentations.
The firm uses both Amicus Attorney and
CaseSoft’s CaseMap (purchasing one of the first 10 copies of it ever
sold) as its knowledge management tools for all of its files. Every file
opened in the office begins with an entry in Amicus Attorney, with the
basic information accessible from every computer to every person in the
office. This gives employees authorization to read all correspondence
and key events associated with a case they are handling. Important
documents, including court filings, are linked to the system. This
serves as both a case management tool, as well as an aid in responding
to discovery requests and preparing for depositions. “We have an
extensive diary and tickler system that we use through Amicus Attorney,
and everyone is charged with reviewing that calendar and to-do system
regularly to make sure we are on top of our files,” Burnett said.
Burnett also said the firm benefits from
Amicus Attorney’s Telephone Pro component. “It automatically dials our
telephone calls, generates e-mails and integrates with [LexisNexis]
PCLaw to make sure calls and e-mails are billed,” she said. “This
maximizes our billing potential.”
Working in a small office allows Burnett
to work on virtually every aspect of a file, including collaborating
with clients, answering discovery, attending depositions, monitoring
exhibits, taking notes and even suggesting lines of questioning. “I talk
and e-mail with our clients all the time and have been able to get to
know many of them,” she said.
A recent addition to the firm’s trial
preparation strategy is to videotape many of its depositions so the team
has the ability to synchronize the video and transcript for both
mediation and trial presentation. Burnett is, of course, the
When the trial arrives, Burnett marks
the exhibits, prepares the electronic trial presentation and drafts
timelines and other materials. She meets with the clients before trial
to make sure they are ready. Even during jury selection she said her
opinion is valued. “Bill always listens to my opinions and will almost
always come to me and the client before ending his questioning of a
witness to see if we have any input,” Burnett said.
Not surprisingly, taking a case to trial is Burnett’s
favorite part of the job. “There is nothing like it,” she said. When the
team takes a case to trial, which they have done six times already in
2005, Burnett prepares the courtroom materials and exhibits and advises
Jeter of their status.
“We use courtroom presentation
technology in all of our cases,” Jeter said. “Kathy operates the
technology in virtually every aspect, and for sure in the courtroom.”
The team prepares their cases largely
through the use of CaseMap, into which all of the pertinent dates,
documents, facts, people, places and things are loaded. All of the
depositions are loaded into CaseSoft’s TextMap and the testimony can be
linked to the CaseMap file. They also frequently use Microsoft OneNote
to record deposition testimony as an audio file. Finally, the scanned
exhibits or other documents, as well as the deposition transcripts can
be migrated into Verdict Systems’ Sanction II for trial use.
She also generates files for possible
arbitration or mediation, loading materials into Sanction II. “Our trial
preparation is insane because we don’t want any glitches at a crucial
moment. I, especially, don’t want a judge, jury, witness or lawyer
looking at me if I am fumbling for an exhibit,” Burnett said.
During their first trial using the new
technology, the duo used Microsoft PowerPoint to present photos of
damage to the home at issue, CaseMap and CaseSoft’s TimeMap to set forth
the chronology of events, and Sanction II as the primary trial
presentation software. Burnett affectionately refers to this maiden
voyage as the “dog and pony show” because a number of other lawyers came
into the courtroom to watch. “Now, we don’t know what we would do
without [trial technology],” she said. “Our clients love [the
technology] almost as much as we do.”
Jeter and Burnett also use Summation and
CaseSoft’s TimeMap. Relying principally on those products with the
strongest (and friendliest) tech support staffs — CaseSoft and Sanction
II — Jeter and Burnett have lobbied the technology companies for
convenience modifications. Some of these suggestions have been
implemented, such as the new TimeMap-Sanction II link.
Although Burnett said she feels some
pressure from the audience watching the trial presentation, she is
excited by the process and enjoys observing Jeter’s skill and
effectiveness in the courtroom. “It’s great to have worked in the trade
for many years and still to be learning and growing professionally and
having a good time doing it,” Burnett said.
Jeter said he trusts Burnett to make her
own decisions and any necessary changes to the courtroom presentation to
ensure maximum effectiveness in the presentation, while preserving the
original exhibits. “I know that the compliments we have received on our
trial work are a result of her efforts,” Jeter said. The ability to
assign projects to Burnett with the knowledge they will be completed
successfully with minimal supervision enables Jeter to more effectively
represent his clients’ interests when it counts the most. “In many
cases, she reads my mind,” he said.
According to Jeter, the impact of
courtroom presentations to a jury is very important, and he takes
comfort in knowing that when he delivers a closing argument to a jury,
the screens will adjust in sync with the correct visual. “This allows an
attorney to concentrate on his job,” he said.
Jeter and Burnett recently had a case involving the insured
of one of the firm’s largest insurance clients. It involved a fire that
destroyed a company and a claim for subrogation of more than $1 million.
“Small by some standards, but very
important to our client and we were ready,” Burnett recalled. At the
conclusion of the plaintiff’s case, the judge directed a verdict in
their client’s favor. The courtroom personnel and even the plaintiff’s
counsel complimented the duo’s trial presentation and demeanor.
Other recent successful cases include a
complicated estate matter in which the firm’s client was sued in
connection with his management of the estate, and a dispute in which
numerous apartment complexes were sued by the U.S. Department of Justice
for noncompliance with regulations associated with the Americans with
Burnett said she believes the duo’s
success is a direct result of the mutual respect for the strengths they
recognize in one another. The two have come to rely on those strengths
to enhance their professional lives. “It’s very fulfilling when you know
your boss appreciates your hard work,” she said.
Jeter doesn’t hesitate to compliment
Burnett for a job well done or to support her when something goes wrong.
In turn, she said, “I believe he knows he can count on me to step up to
the plate when he needs me.”
In addition to her professional
relationship with Jeter, Burnett credits her technology and educational
training with the positive experience she has had in her legal career.
“I have been lucky enough to attend numerous seminars and training
sessions during my career, and I have had the pleasure of speaking at
quite a few events on topics as varied as discovery techniques and
changing ethics requirements for paralegals,” she said.
Jeter recently sponsored her attendance
at a two-day training session in Tempe, Ariz., related to the use of
Sanction II. She also has been trained in the use of Summation, CaseMap
products and other legal software.
From the lawyer’s perspective, Jeter recommends employers
find someone they trust and in whom they can place their confidence. The
key, he said, is to treat them with respect and make sure they have all
the training necessary to do the tasks. “Then, convince them to believe
in you, make sure they are well compensated and they share in the firm’s
financial health,” he said. In this regard, Jeter recommends attorneys
set a formula for bonuses and stick to the established criteria. “When
you succeed, they succeed,” he said.
As a paralegal, Burnett said having a
boss who is receptive to her ideas has been key in their successful
relationship. To that end, she encourages legal assistants to be patient
when they first begin working with an attorney, but voice concerns when
appropriate. For example, the first time Burnett joined Jeter at a
client meeting, Jeter forgot to introduce her. At an appropriate break
when the client was out of the room, she suggested that he introduce her
to the client because she would be his main contact in the office. Jeter
appreciated the suggestion, agreed with Burnett, and immediately made
the introduction. He has done so at every meeting ever since. She notes
that the courage to offer constructive opinions is important, but it
must be done in a way that is not overly judgmental. Burnett pointed out
that Jeter did not fail to introduce her intentionally, it just slipped
Burnett also suggests paralegals stay
involved in the paralegal community. She is a member of the Greater
Memphis Paralegal Alliance and attends monthly meetings, regular
training seminars and symposia, all of which allow her to network and
make professional alliances. Jeter is very supportive of Burnett’s
activities in the GMPA, as he also is active in legal associations: He
is a member of the American Bar Association, the American Trial Lawyers
Association and the Tennessee Bar Association. He also serves on the
Board of Directors of the Memphis Bar Association.
Burnett also is considering taking the
National Association of Legal Assistants’ Certified Legal Assistant
exam, a national standardized paralegal certification. “I think it would
be good for professional purposes,” she said. The CLA certification
would require Burnett to learn about different areas of the law, which
she thinks would give her a higher standing in the legal assistant
community. “It’s like passing the bar exam for a paralegal,” she noted.
Growing as a
Both Jeter and Burnett recognize increased enhancements to
their technological repertoire are essential for growing the practice
and maintaining their level of success in court.
With the continued success of their
business relationship, their trust and confidence in each other keeps
growing. “Bill and I really work as a team. Even though he is the bottom
line, there is never any hesitation on my part to make suggestions or
even to disagree with him about a course of action,” she said.
Jeter noted Burnett impacts the firm’s
profitability and his ability to generate additional revenue. “Kathy
motivates me one way or the other,” he said. “I trust and respect her in
every aspect of our work, but more than anything else, I know when I
give her a job to do, it will be done on time, in a professional
“When you win, there is no feeling like
it,” Burnett said. “I love being a part of that.”