People often ask Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell paralegal Jared Drotzmann why he won’t go to law school. “The reason I like being a paralegal is I’m in the background and I don’t get all the notoriety,” he says. He’s sometimes seen sitting at a small table in the courtroom and, Drotzmann says, “people always ask lawyers, ‘Who’s that guy? What’s he doing over there?’”
What he’s doing, quite often, is quietly running the show as “trial director.” He’s the person in charge of managing exhibits and presentations, making sure the right PowerPoint slide or document is being displayed and the relevant text is highlighted for everyone in the courtroom to see. While much of the presentation is planned ahead of time, the role also requires improvisation and quick thinking — especially during cross-examination, when an attorney might hand him a sticky note asking him to pull up a specific piece of evidence or testimony.
It’s a high-pressure role that’s key to making a trial run smoothly and professionally. “Most juries I’ve talked to really appreciate that. I think it makes a difference in the jury’s eyes,” he said. After all, few people are thrilled to get a jury summons, so it’s important to make the client’s case as efficiently as possible so jurors can “get out of that courtroom and go on with their lives,” he said.
“It’s not a sexy job, but going and winning at trial, that’s where the accomplishment lies and that’s where you get to see the fruits of your labor,” Drotzmann said.
When he’s not in the courtroom, he’s helping lawyers stay on task, making sure deadlines are met and keeping track of documents. “I look at being a paralegal as kind of playing quarterback,” he said.
He also gets to dig up dirt, which is one of his favorite parts of the job. Drotzmann started his paralegal career in the mid-2000s — the era of MySpace — and the opportunities for digging have multiplied since then with the proliferation of social media platforms. His online research might reveal that someone had a surgery 15 years ago that they’re not disclosing, for example, or uncover other litigation they’ve been involved with. Sometimes he’ll find information about the other party that their lawyer doesn’t even know about. “That’s the fun for me — getting the truth of the matter,” he said.
Drotzmann didn’t plan for a career as a paralegal. He studied philosophy and political science in college and originally thought he would pursue a career in academia. After graduating from Augustana University in South Dakota, he considered moving to either Minneapolis or Denver and ultimately chose Colorado for its lack of bugs, better weather and the fact it was a bit farther from Sioux Falls, where he spent much of his childhood.
He settled in the Mile High City in 2004 and started working as a bartender. He knew he didn’t want to do that forever but wasn’t sure what else to do until he watched the film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts as the titular activist and legal clerk who helped bring a high-profile pollution lawsuit against a California utility company. Drotzmann said he saw a lot of the same traits in Brockovich’s character as he saw in himself, “and that’s when I looked into paralegal school.”
He attended a six-month intensive program at the Denver Paralegal Institute, now Kaplan College. After graduating, he got a job at a civil litigation solo firm, where he stayed for a couple of years, then worked for a larger firm for a decade before moving to WTO in 2017. Drotzmann said landing the job at WTO is one of his proudest accomplishments. “This is a great prestigious firm in the community,” he said.
To succeed as a litigation paralegal, it helps to have a competitive spirit, according to Drotzmann, since there’s usually a winner and a loser in every trial. He grew up playing just about every sport as a kid — soccer, basketball, tennis, golf, football — but found that playing golf with friends as an adult didn’t really scratch that same competitive itch. “So, I use my job as my outlet for my competitive nature,” he said.
Drotzmann moved around and switched schools frequently as a child, and he says that experience, plus his time as a bartender, helped him develop the ability to talk to all types of people. “I’m really good at talking to someone on the fly and finding ways I can relate to them or make them feel at ease, like it’s not so lawyer-ish,” he said. “I think that’s a really big benefit to what I do.”
He says his most valuable contribution to his team is his strong work ethic, which he also attributes to his childhood. He grew up watching his mother work two or three jobs, and he spent part of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in South Dakota. “When you’re raised on a farm — that whole life and that mentality — there’s not a lot of praise, and it is hard work,” he said, adding his work ethic and willingness to work long hours without complaining have helped him in his career.
But work-life balance is also important. “I’ve got to get away and kind of decompress,” Drotzmann said, and that means getting out of the city to fish, camp and enjoy nature. “To me, there’s nothing better than standing in the middle of a river fishing for a weekend and not seeing a person. And it’s just you, the river and your fishing pole,” he said. He also travels when he can. “I feel like a lot of people haven’t seen their own country, because the U.S. is so big,” he said. “So I love traveling domestically to cool places, just getting in the car and going to places like Mesa Verde or Moab or the Grand Canyon.”