Process servers are licensed by the courts to serve legal papers, such as summonses, subpoenas, and court orders, to the parties involved in legal disputes. People served may include witnesses, defendants in lawsuits, or the employers of workers whose wages are being garnished by court order. Corporations can be served through their statutory agents (representatives), and unknown parties can be served as John or Jane Doe, with their true names being substituted when learned by the court. Process servers work independently or as employees of law firms and other companies.
Process Server Career History
Modern-day process servers owe their lineage to the English bailiff, whose powers included the serving and enforcement of common law decrees such as writs of attainder (a notice of outlawry, the loss of civil rights, or sentence of death), or habeas corpus (a call for one in custody to be brought to court). The bailiff was considered a minor court official with authority to serve the court in several ways, one of which included handling legal documents. In English literature, the most notable characterizations of bailiffs can be found in the works of the 19th-century writer Charles Dickens.
In the United States, these duties were carried out by constables until the 1930s, when the term private process server was coined to describe an official who could serve legal documents, but who had no law enforcement powers. The heavy burden of serving all the legal papers fell on the court officials and law enforcement personnel until the process server position was born. Although all criminal process service is still carried out by many sheriffs’ and marshals’ offices, much of the civil process service is now handled by independent process servers.
Process Server Job Description
Process servers are responsible for assuring that people are notified in a timely and legal fashion that they are required to appear in court. Their clients may include attorneys, government agencies (such as a state’s attorney general’s office), or any person who files a lawsuit, seeks a divorce, or begins a legal action. As private individuals, process servers occupy a unique position in the legal system: They are court officers, but not court employees; they cannot give legal advice, or practice as attorneys.
A process server’s duties are also distinct from that of the sheriff’s because process servers serve papers only in civil matters, although the sheriff and constable serve in both civil and criminal matters. Criminal arrest warrants, for example, or papers ordering the seizure of property, are served exclusively by sheriffs, constables, and other law enforcement officials. To ensure that private process servers aren’t mistaken for law enforcement officials, most jurisdictions forbid process servers to wear uniforms and badges or to place official-looking emblems on their vehicles.
Process servers use their knowledge of the rules of civil procedure on a daily basis as they carry out their duties. Certain types of papers—for example, a summons or court orders— expire if not served within a certain number of days. Others, such as subpoenas, must be served quickly to allow a witness time to plan or to make travel arrangements. Eviction notices and notices of trustee sales can be posted on the property in certain situations, and writs of garnishments (orders to bring property to the court) require the process server to mail papers as well as serve them.
Besides being aware of the time limits on serving a paper, process servers must know whom they are allowed to serve in a given situation. A summons, for example, can be served directly to the person named or to a resident of the household, provided they are of a suitable age. A court order or a subpoena, on the other hand, can only be served to the person named. Special circumstances also exist for serving minors, people judged to be mentally incompetent, or people who have declared bankruptcy. Many such rules and exceptions exist, and the process server is responsible for making sure that every service is valid by following these rules. An invalid service can cause excessive delays in a case, or even cause a case to be dismissed due to procedural mistakes on the part of the process server. In light of this, many process servers, or the companies they work for, are bonded and carry malpractice insurance.
A process server’s job is further complicated by the fact that many people do not want to be served and go to great lengths to avoid it. Much of a process server’s time is spent skip-tracing—that is, attempting to locate an address for a person who has moved or who may be avoiding service. The client may provide the process server with some information about the person, such as a last known address, a place of business, or even a photograph of the person, but occasionally process servers have to gather much of this information on their own. Questioning neighbors or coworkers is a common practice, as is using the public information provided by government offices such as the assessor’s office, voter’s registration, or the court clerk to locate the person. Sometimes, process servers even stake out a home or business to serve papers.
Tony Klein, from the Process Server Institute, says the clientele and the people who are served vary according to the type of work the process server does. “Some servers have clients that send primarily collection lawsuits. The defendants are generally of low to moderate income, live in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, and might be evasive. Some servers specialize in the high end, same day, special-handling assignments involving lawsuits over substantial amounts of money.”
The actual service of the paper is a simple, often anti-climactic process. The process server identifies himself or herself as an officer of the court and tells the person that he or she is being served, then hands the person the documents. If the person won’t accept service, or won’t confirm his or her identity, the process server will drop papers or simply leave the documents. In the eyes of the court, the person is considered served whether or not they actually touch the papers, sign for them, or even acknowledge the process server’s presence.
Process Server Career Requirements
If process serving sounds interesting to you, get a head start now and take courses in English, political science, communication, and any law or business-related courses. Training in a foreign language can also be extremely helpful because process servers may encounter non-English speakers.
Although college is not required, advanced courses in psychology, communication, and business would be of great benefit to a potential process server. You won’t find many, if any, college or university majors called process serving. However, any college-level work in legal studies will prepare you for work in this field. The Process Server Institute (see their contact information at the end of this article) holds training seminars that focuses directly on process serving. This type of specific training will help a new process server more than the general legal studies approach.
Certification or Licensing
Any U.S. citizen who is not party to the case, is over the age of 18, and who resides in the state where the matter is to be tried may serve due process (that is, be a process server for a specific legal matter). However, people who serve papers on a regular basis usually must register with their particular state. The courts take the licensing of process servers seriously, and many jurisdictions require applicants to take a written exam; some even require an interview with the presiding judge. Alvin Esper, a process server in Indiana, recommends that all new servers obtain private detective status with their particular state: “This is not a requirement in most states or the federal courts,” Esper adds, “but it can protect you when you must perform stakeouts to locate a person to be served.” Because most states differ on their requirements, you should get more information from your local office of the Clerk of the Superior Court.
Because process serving is a face-to-face job, people who excel in this field are usually bold, confident, and skilled at working with people. Gaining a reputation as reliable and responsible will go a long way with prospective clients who want someone who won’t give up on serving papers to people. Because process servers often serve papers to people who don’t want them, a certain element of danger is involved. Process servers must be willing to take that risk in some situations. Esper says, “Depending on the individual to be served, serving can be dangerous. I usually try to serve papers during daylight hours, depending on whether the neighborhood seems safe or unsafe.”
Exploring Process Server Career
Check the National Association of Professional Process Servers Web site (http://napps.org/) for process servers in your state. Contact some of these people who are working in the field now and ask for information. Speaking to attorneys, or to a local constable or sheriff’s deputy, could also be helpful. Since most court records are public, you could look at actual files of court cases to familiarize yourself with the types of papers served and examine affidavits filed by process servers.
Most process servers are independent contractors. They set up their own service business and provide process serving to individuals, lawyers, and courts. Other process servers may work for small law firms, attorney’s offices, or law enforcement agencies on a full-time or part-time basis. Because courts are located throughout the country, process servers will find opportunities just about everywhere. Larger cities will have more opportunities, of course, simply due to the higher concentration of people.
Most process serving companies train their new employees and encourage them to travel with licensed process servers to familiarize them with the job. Often, the employer will assist in preparing the employee for the examination by providing them with copies of the local rules or even a study guide. Because of the flexible hours and hands-on experience with legal papers and cases, process serving is a popular job with college students, especially those who are interested in becoming attorneys themselves.
Firms specializing in attorney services will frequently train messengers and other office personnel as process servers, because they are already familiar with legal terms and documents.
You won’t see many advertisements in newspapers for process servers. Instead the key to landing this job is to network with people in the legal profession. If you or someone in your family knows a lawyer, ask him or her to refer you to someone who may be interested in training a new process server.
A process server may start out as a legal messenger, delivering documents to law offices and filing papers with the city, state, or federal courts. In most jurisdictions, subpoenas don’t need to be served by a licensed process server, so an employee of an attorney service can begin a career in process serving in this manner.
Once licensed, a process server can expect to work for a firm as either a salaried employee or a private contractor. As process servers gain experience, they typically serve more papers, and perhaps acquire bigger or more lucrative territory in which to work. In this way, advancement is also tied to the papers themselves.
In a sense, the papers that a process server delivers or serves are actually worth money, but only to the process server who delivers them. Just as private delivery companies charge for their services, process serving companies or individuals also charge for their services. The difference is that the rates are determined by the courts with the amount any given paper is worth legally fixed by law. Usually, the pricing is set in terms of the location of the delivery, the number of miles from the courthouse, and so on, but anything that makes delivery more difficult or time-consuming can add to the cost. For example, papers to be served on someone living 50 miles from the courthouse are worth more because it takes more time and money to drive 50 miles out of town. The value of those particular papers increases if they must be served within a day and the person being served has moved, forcing the process server to spend considerable time, money, and effort learning the new address. Because most process servers are independent contractors, they are rewarded for their seniority and long service with a company by being assigned to the most lucrative territories, or those areas in which the papers are worth the most.
Some process servers use the knowledge and experience they gain working for a firm to start their own businesses. Process servers who operate their own companies are responsible for all aspects of the business, from supervising and training personnel to advertising, accounting, and tax preparation.
Earnings for process servers vary according to the number and type of papers served. If a process server is working as an employee of a firm, or as a private contractor, he or she can expect to earn approximately 25 to 40 percent of the total amount the firm charges the client to serve the paper. The average cost a firm charges to serve a paper is $25, but this number can vary wildly, depending on the mileage traveled to serve the paper, the number of attempts made, or any special efforts required to effect service. When taking into consideration skip-tracing, stakeout time, and other investigative efforts, the fee can be much higher.
A salaried employee who works part-time as a process server can expect to make approximately $27,000, although a salaried, full-time process server can expect almost twice as much, approximately $45,000 to $50,000. The U.S. Department of Labor reports a median annual salary of $20,870 in 2005 for couriers and messengers, which includes those working for legal services. Earnings ranged from less than $14,330 to $33,670 or more. These figures can be misleading, however. A process server can work all day and not serve any papers. The next day, he or she could make almost $600. A non-salaried process server who hustles and has a decent territory can make good money, too. “The rate depends on the type of work and the need for it,” Tony Klein says. “You can make a living doing this type of work. If you work for someone, you make less than working for yourself. Every market is different; for example, in California independent servers make $2,000 to $4,000 per month.”
Employees may receive such benefits as health insurance and paid vacation time.
Being a process server requires a certain amount of hustle. The job requires that the person be part investigator, part process server, and part legal messenger. The successful process server will enjoy the more tedious aspects of sleuthing, such as tracking down routine information about someone’s life.
Considering the process server’s position as the bearer of bad news, it is not surprising that the job can be stressful at times. Defendants who have been avoiding service may become angry when finally served. Violence against process servers is rare but does occur. Subsequently, process servers need to remain clearheaded in stressful situations and be able to use their communication skills to their best advantage.
Process servers may work at any hour of the day in most jurisdictions, and many choose to work weekends or holidays as well. This allows for an extremely flexible work schedule, because the process server is usually the one who decides when to attempt service on a given paper. In scheduling an attempted service, the process server’s main considerations are serving the paper as quickly as possible with the fewest number of attempts; if the party is not home, the process server must return later.
Many large process serving companies assign their employees fixed areas to work in, allowing a process server to become familiar with a certain section of a large city, for example, or several small towns in a given area. Even if a process server has a fixed territory, he or she can still expect to travel to a wide variety of locations. “Process serving is a lot of driving,” Esper says. “Most often you are searching for the address of the person to be served.” In the course of a year, a process server might serve at hospitals, prisons, schools, and any number of private offices.
When not serving papers, process servers spend much of their time working closely with attorneys, judges, and other court personnel. For this reason, many process servers dress in a professional manner. When serving, however, a process server may wear whatever he or she prefers, and many choose to dress casually. Some dress casually to appear unobtrusive, hoping that potentially evasive parties will be caught off guard, and therefore served more easily.
Process Server Career Outlook
Employment opportunities for process servers will grow as the number of legal matters increases. The rising number of civil lawsuits bodes well for process servers, since a single case can produce anywhere from one service to dozens, when taking into account subpoenas, supporting orders, writs of garnishment, and the like.
Some sheriff’s departments (long mandated by law to serve civil papers) are now beginning to rely solely on private process servers, because they cannot effectively compete with the faster and more inexpensive private process serving companies. Other jurisdictions, increasingly under pressure to justify serving civil papers at a loss, are likely to revise their laws as well.
From time to time, various jurisdictions experiment with service by registered mail, but these experiments are limited and usually not long lasting, since the most efficient way to ensure that a person has been notified is to notify him or her in person.