In terms of unsolicited knocks on the front door, about the only person less welcome than a Jehovah's Witness is a process server.
If one is standing on your doorstep, your day is about to get a lot worse, usually because you either owe someone money, or you're being cordially invited to visit the inside of a courtroom. Fortunately, most of us will be able to spend our lives blissfully ignorant of what the job entails, relying instead on media portrayals like Seth Rogen's pot-smoking smartass in Pineapple Express, or, if we're feeling masochistic, maybe even Matthew Perry's character in 2002's Serving Sara (which currently carries an impressive four percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
In real life, a process server is somewhere between a legal assistant and a PI, responsible for delivering legal documents to people who aren't interested in receiving legal documents, on behalf of clients who would very much like said people to receive said legal documents. These could be anything from criminal subpoenas, to a summons, to divorce papers, to a civil complaint. Some files are straightforward (suing for damages), while others can stray into ethically questionable territory (First Nations or labour protesters). And while there are fewer ninjas and explosions than the movies might lead us to believe, it's still a job that can involve its share of excitement, from tailing, to stakeouts, to journeys to remote places.
In an interview likely to garner at least four percent on Rotten Tomatoes, we chatted with Andrew*, a 22-year veteran of the process serving game about celebrity encounters, stakeouts, difficult files, and whether recipients ever actually look like Elizabeth Hurley.
*Interview has been edited for length and clarity
VICE: What the hell is a process server, exactly?
Andrew: If I'm out socially and it comes up, people usually don't know what it is. Or, they think you're some kind of Dog the Bounty Hunter or something—which is really not the case. We basically serve civil law documents. We've done some criminal subpoenas, but not a whole lot. Whoever our clients are, they want legal proof in the form of an affidavit that those documents have been delivered—something they can take into court or some legal proceedings.
How did you end up in this line of work?
I was all set to go to law school, and I was driving into town with a good friend who was already a lawyer. And he recommended I do some serving over the summer for extra cash, because that's how he'd put himself through law school. And I enjoyed it so much that I never looked back.
What kind of qualities does one need to do the job well?
There isn't any specific Process Server 101 manual that you go through. It's a lot of on-the-job training. One of my partners has a business degree. Another came straight out of high school. We have one server who's a licensed PI. So we've got a good mixture of people from various backgrounds.
How do people generally react to being served?
You need to understand: you're not exactly bringing them the winnings of the Lotto 6/49.
I have a general rule of thumb: whenever I go to a door, I always put my hand out to shake hands first, so I can put the onus on the other person to shake my hand or not. Which is a good indication of how receptive they're going to be. If you explain to people the nature of the business and why you're there, they're generally receptive to it.
What sorts of clients will you typically have?
The majority of our clientele are law firms. Some of them are financial institutions. And a small percentage of the general public—GPs, we call them.
What about the people you're serving? Who are they, generally?
It could be pretty much anyone. It could be your next-door neighbour who was involved in a motor vehicle accident. There's no stereotypical type of client. As long as you're over the legal age. If you're underage, we have to serve a parent or legal guardian.
And in 22 years, we've also served a lot of high-profile individuals—from athletes, to TV personalities, to prominent businesspeople. And you treat them all the same. I've had to serve people that I know. Or people I recognize. And I always take the people approach. I call them and say: 'Look, this is what's going on. How do you want to handle this?' If they're famous, they don't want their business leaked all over the place any more than you would.
What are the hours like?
It varies. We're paid per file, and we bill clients accordingly. I had a file up north with a major lumber company where we were on call basically 24 hours a day. And we went out from 11 PM to 2 AM, came back, slept for two hours, and then went back out at 4 AM.
One of our servers had a strata file that took him a couple of weeks. At first we had no pictures, but luckily, one day, they did an interview with Global TV. So, all of a sudden, we knew what they looked like. Which helped. He had to do his research, and find out when they walked their dogs. And the server basically had to go stake out the place, and waited until he knew when they went out to walk their dog, and serve them right then and there.
Are there busier times of the month? Times of year?
Yes and no. It's pretty much year-round—a 364-day-a-year industry. You'll usually have July and August, when a lot of lawyers and legal assistants are on vacation, and there isn't much litigation going on. That's a bit slower. But the first two weeks of December are usually quite hectic. There's a cut-off period around December 15, depending on the firm or the client—between December 14 and December 17. It's a goodwill gesture. Nobody wants to serve anyone on Christmas Day. So you have a 10-day window after that where it's generally slow.
How far will people go to avoid being served?
We've had some interesting files over the years. I had one where I had to serve someone in a high-profile divorce involving a Hollywood actress, and her husband. And they wanted him served that day, before he went back to LA. And they were also really afraid that he might serve her first. She was avoiding service out there, buying me time so I could serve him out here. We ended up spending six or seven hours.
And finally, I followed him from his house, and he's weaving in and out of traffic. And I'm following. And at one point, he put his turn signal on to turn into a gas station, which indicated to me that he was low on fuel. And eventually, he made a mistake, and turned down a dead-end street. And I watched him turn around, and as he started coming back the other way, I got out of my car and just stood in front of him. And he wouldn't open the window. He knew what was happening. And traffic's piling up behind us, and people are honking their horns. And I just said: 'Hey, I can stand here all day. I've got a full tank of gas, and you're almost out.' And he knew that the gig was up, and finally took the documents.
You sometimes get exciting cases, but 80 percent of the time, it's pretty routine. You just have make sure to do your homework.