Obscure Careers: Process Server

by Joe Taylor Jr.

Home >> Articles >> Legal Careers >> Obscure Careers: Process Server

Americans enjoy a constitutional right to due process that includes ample advance notification of a court summons. Professional process servers alleviate the backlog that can happen when lawyers and law enforcement officials don't have the resources to serve papers themselves. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, process servers can earn more than $70,000 per year at the high end (bls.gov/opub/ooq, 2012).

What is a process server's job?

Unlike their typical depiction on television or in the movies, process servers don't always have to don elaborate disguises or plan complex operations to get legal papers into the hands of defendants. The vast majority of cases require serving papers to people at their homes or offices during office hours. As a process server, you'll verify an intended recipient's name, hand them the appropriate documents, then make a note of their appearance at the time you completed your task.

According to industry veterans, relatively few people try to dodge process service. That usually only happens when a defendant thinks they can avoid a lawsuit by failing to take receipt of the paperwork. Instead of giving chase, a process server can simply try again at a later time or in a different location. By the third attempt, a process server can simply drop the paperwork at an individual's feet, say their name and announce, "you've been served."

If service remains in doubt, most courts will allow a lawsuit to proceed after papers have been served to a competent adult or delivered by certified mail at a defendant's known place of work or residence. However, some employers will pay premium rates to process servers who can deliver paperwork for challenging cases on the first try. Instead of getting paid a salary, most process servers earn commissions for each completed task on their roster. Therefore, process servers with stamina and organization skills can boost their income by accepting more assignments than their peers.

Three sources for process server jobs

Although many process servers work as independent contractors, they obtain assignments from a handful of sources:

  • Law offices. In many parts of the country, courts require lawyers to handle process service on the documents they file. However, many counties also prohibit lawyers from serving documents directly on cases. Therefore, most law firms rely on contractors to handle the work.
  • Sheriff's offices. Most times, law enforcement officials can serve documents related to criminal cases. However, many agencies prefer to outsource these tasks, so they can keep personnel focused on law enforcement activities.
  • Process serving agencies. In larger cities and counties, centralized agencies handle the large volume of cases by distributing assignments across a combination of full-time employees and independent contractors.

The unpredictable nature of a career as a process server may mean alternating between busy and light periods. The more referral relationships are built in a process server's community, the more often their name could come up in rotation for urgent tasks.

How to become a process server

Before landing that first job, a process server license is needed specific to the city or county the process server will cover. In most parts of the country, qualifying for a license requires:

  • Paying a nominal, annual fee to cover recordkeeping costs
  • Completing a background check or a personal background information form
  • Leaving a copy of current photo ID on file
  • Maintaining a surety bond of $10,000 or more
  • Filing a list of process serving agencies from which you accept jobs
  • Confirming that you are up to date on personal tax and child support payments
  • Registering your fingerprints with court officials
  • Completing a process server individual exam and paying any applicable fee

Some jurisdictions, like New York City, require process servers to carry a smartphone or other wireless device that can log GPS coordinates and the time and date for each attempt at service.

Pitfalls of the process server profession

Despite enjoying relative flexibility and the potential to earn higher than average annual wages, process servers face some unusual challenges when carrying out their daily tasks. For example, some defendants can lash out at process servers, acting out both verbally and physically. Process servers have endured getting pushed, punched, and spit on by defendants in tough cases.

Sometimes, process servers can put themselves in jeopardy by attempting to resemble law enforcement officers or by trying to ambush their targets at their homes. In rare cases, defendants have shot at process servers, mistaking them for intruders. Industry veterans advise process servers not to wear uniforms or carry badges, especially when serving court papers on suspected criminals.

How process service can pay for paralegal education

Although you don't need a specific training program or certification to apply for your process server license, students in law enforcement or paralegal programs tend to excel at the job. With relatively flexible hours and attractive pay for tenacious professionals, a side job as a process server can help law students or aspiring paralegals cover expenses while pursuing formal degrees. In fact, the personal connections built with lawyers and law enforcement professionals can be helpful during the job search after completing a formal legal training degree program.


"Don't bother avoiding process servers," Stephanie Rabiner, FindLaw, 2012, http://blogs.findlaw.com/law_and_life/2012/05/dont-bother-avoiding-process-servers.html"Judge candidate accused of assaulting person serving him with summons," Joey Garrison, Nashville City Paper, 2012, http://nashvillecitypaper.com/content/city-news/judge-candidate-accused-assaulting-person-serving-him-summons"Process server individual," New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, 2013, http://www.nyc.gov/html/dca/html/licenses/110.shtml"Process server shot by Prescott man after serving papers," Lisa Irish, The Daily Courier, 2011, http://www.dcourier.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubsectionID=1&ArticleID=98398"What is a process server?" ServeNow.com, 2011, http://www.serve-now.com/articles/130/what-is-a-process-server"You're a what? Process server," Elka Torpey, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2012/spring/yawhat.pdf

About Author

Joe Taylor Jr. has covered personal finance and business for over two decades. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, Fox Business, and ABC News. Previously, Joe worked as a marketing and customer service training advisor for three of the country's leading consumer lenders. He recently completed a personal finance book entitled The Rogue Guide to Credit Cards; (Rogue Guide Books, 2012). When not writing about business, Joe serves as a corporate communications advisor for a Fortune 500 company.

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