Looking Back with Paralegal Thelma Alvarado-Garza
Below is the interview transcript between Thelma Alvarado-Garza and Shannon Williams, NTL’s Marketing Director.
What do you enjoy most about your work at National Trial Law?
Thelma Alvarado-Garza: The work is meaningful, and it is fluid. Our clients depend upon us. They depend on us to manage their cases, to bring their case to a successful resolution, because it matters to them. They’re suffering from serious or catastrophic injuries. If we can be successful and get them compensation, then it can change their life. And so what we do, in a sense, makes a contribution to the world. It makes [the work] meaningful.
It’s fluid in the sense that the cases are different. What we have to do to prove cases, and the people that we represent come from all different walks of life, and so it keeps it interesting. The work up of the cases is also fluid in the sense that it’s like a communal project, right? You’re working with a team of people. You’re working with a group. You learn about the ideas others bring to a case. You learn about different skills, different talents. And I’ve enjoyed all the people I’ve worked with. A lot of them I’ve remained friends with over the course of time. And the firm has just always offered a great environment for work life balance. And that’s meaningful, it keeps my home life in a good place.
If you had the chance, what advice would you have given yourself when beginning your career?
Thelma: If I could go back I probably would have told myself to just be flexible. I started in the firm as a legal secretary for two partners, not as a paralegal. During paralegal school, I did an internship for a small firm with four attorneys who practiced various types of law. And when I learned of the job opening [at Whitehurst] towards the end of my paralegal school and internship, the majority of those lawyers told me “Go.” And I pushed back a little like, “Well, I’m studying to be a paralegal, right? This is a legal secretary position.” They told me “Get your foot in the door, and just get there. It’s a good firm.” So maybe I would say to somebody, “be flexible.” Don’t turn something down because it doesn’t meet your expectations, because it’ll change.
When you started at the firm, NTL was nearing a 20 year milestone. What are some of the ways the caseload has changed over the most recent 30 year history?
Thelma: Early on in my career, we had a lot of aviation cases, and some of them involved midair-collisions. Others involved aircraft failures. In addition to the aviation docket, it was a heavy product liability practice. Or at least the attorney that I came to work for had a considerable products liability practice. All of those types of cases were really weighted in discovery. The discovery often included manufacturing designs and plans.
It was very intriguing to see how the manufacturing world works, to delve into discovering how products fail and how to resolve a case on that scale. Whether it was a car manufacturer or a midair collision case, it was interesting to see how that affects society and the community at large.
Today, much of the legal practice at National Trial Law is medical malpractice and FTCA claims. Can you tell me about the types of cases you have worked on at the firm and how that has changed over time?
Thelma: I would say that in the last ten, fifteen years, FTCA case work, and medical malpractice has grown at the firm. But medical malpractice was always part of the practice.
It was just that back when I initially started, the organization of the firm was such that as a staff person you worked on a team, and you were assigned to a lawyer who had their own support staff, and they developed their own docket. The attorneys I was hired to support, mostly had a personal injury and products liability practice.
There were other attorneys in the firm who had medical malpractice dockets, but Tom [Harkness] mostly carried the products liability cases. We also had automobile accident cases, personal injury cases, but he did not handle any or he handled a very small number of medical malpractice cases that came to the firm.
What are you most proud of in your professional career?
Thelma: There are a few things that come to mind – one when we went to trial in a case against the car manufacturer. This was around the time that courtroom technology, presentations were just beginning. Before there were a lot of poster boards, foam boards, enlarged visual aids, but not the use of technology to help with that.
The normal practice for car manufacturers was that once the case was set to go to trial, the local counsel on the case would hire a national counsel. In this case a company from Florida was hired. We hadn’t seen them in the case yet. I was curious, so I started doing a bit of sleuthing and trying to find out about them. I found out about the advanced electronic presentations they were doing.
I went to Tom, and I was like, “We’re going to have a dog and pony show compared to what they’re going to present. We really need to do something different.” Tom was like “No, we can’t, Thelma. It’s just not that systematic when you’re in a trial. If a witness says to me, X, and I’ve not heard that before, I may follow that path. And it’s not like you can just stick to a script.” So I said, “Okay, well, then just trust that I know this case, right? And then I’ll have everything available to follow the path with you, and we’ll have a script recognizing that things may go in a different direction.” He was very hesitant to do it because PowerPoint was all we had at the time. But he agreed and he said, “We need backup, and we’ll shut it down if it isn’t working.” We went into trial doing this presentation, and sure enough, the car manufacturer has their own technology team, their own IT group. They’ve got this huge set up, and we’ve got PowerPoint. I had the whole case on a Lanyard.
We go with it, and it works beautifully. We learned the dance, right? I would do some sort of signal to stretch, keep talking, let me find what you need, kind of thing. We succeeded in the case and reached a verdict for our client at the end of the trial. At the end, the other side asked, “What did you use to present your case?” And it was like “This PowerPoint.” And they were blown away because it wasn’t a new software program for trial presentation. It was just PowerPoint. Back then, there was a benefit of being assigned to one person because you got the case from the get go, oftentimes from intake, and all the way through to the end. And you were only working with that particular attorney or team. And so you knew all the idiosyncrasies, and you kind of learned to dance.
Can you tell me about one of the most memorable times during your time at National Trial Law?
Thelma: We had a case going to trial in Los Angeles, California. The way the California docket worked at that time was that you presented for a pretrial conference, and it was very possible that at the conference, the judge would tell you that trial would begin the next day. So, the trial team of the four went ahead a couple of days before the hearing.
Everybody took a role in preparing for trial. Tom Harkness was lead on the case, so his role was to take care of the hearing. Whitehurst came in to help because a partner usually came in to assist during the trial. He and I were responsible for finding our lodging, a house or apartment, because we anticipated we’d be there for about a month. And then Cindy Stewart’s job was to find a local office we could operate out of with copy service, copiers, et cetera.
When hearing day came up, we dropped off Tom at the courtroom for him to handle the pretrial conference. Bill and I looked at and interviewed different complexes and hotels, and we finally found one that looked like it was going to work. They had everything we needed. And right as we were getting down into the details of the contract, Bill stepped out to take a call. He came back in and just said, “No, we’re done. Let’s just go ahead and get going.” And it’s like, Well, “Tom can be done soon, and we need to be able to say that we’ve resolved this part.” And he’s like, “Let’s just go ahead and go.” And as we walk out, he says, “Tom settled the case.” So we went to pick up Tom and Cindy. And then we just got the rest of the day to celebrate the settlement.
We spent the day in LA – going to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and having dinner. We had dessert, coffee and cognac at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The stress of it was gone, and we had the day to just go out and be tourists before our flight out.