Be A Superlative Local Counsel

I previously wrote about the circumstances in which it makes sense strategically, financially or otherwise to involve local counsel. Here I want to draw on my experiences as an attorney who has frequently both hired and been hired as local counsel to offer some suggestions on ways you can be an outstanding local counsel.

One observation at the outset. Some lawyers or firms view the role of being local counsel to another “lead” lawyer or firm as less than desirable. They see it as somehow akin to being a second class citizen in the context of a lawsuit (or, I suppose, deal). While lawyers who have this attitude will usually swallow their pride and do the work, assuming they perceive the engagement as fiscally attractive, they never really put their hearts into it. I’ve had good fortune over the years with the firms I’ve hired as local counsel. And I hope my client firms have felt I brought value to our cases.

But I have sensed this kind of friction on occasion, particularly where my partners and I, as lead counsel, insist we do tasks that local counsel believe (perhaps accurately) that they would perform better and cheaper. This decision is usually based either on our financial arrangement with the client (a flat fee, for example) or because we perceive the client expects that we, as lead counsel, will do the work. There’s not much to say to local counsel in these circumstances beyond, I suppose, get over it.

With that piece of throat-clearing out of the way, here are some thoughts about what local counsel can do to set themselves apart and, in doing so, make future engagements more likely.

1. Put yourself in lead counsel’s shoes. Acting as local counsel is unique and calls for a kind of flexible, outside-the-box kind of thinking. Rather than “how would I handle this (situation, development, procedural requirement, etc.)?” the relevant question becomes “what does the client (i.e., lead) firm need to know in order to make an informed decision what to do under the circumstances.” This can be challenging because it may require a lawyer to suppress or ignore her own instincts about what to do, which sometimes conflicts with what the client/lead firm ultimately decides to do.

2. Don’t take much (or anything) for granted. Experience litigating in multiple venues may give us an idea how things are “generally done.” But some jurisdictions do things radically different. For example, the state courts in my home, California, have a very specific procedural scheme, particularly with respect to expert discovery. Out-of-state practitioners struggle to follow our rules of civil procedure because they are unique. Other states adopt procedures that seem to mirror the Federal Rules. The key for local counsel is not to assume your lead counsel knows what is required, even if your state court procedure is mostly on par with the Federal Rules.

3. What do you know about the judge? This is probably obvious, but one of the reasons to hire local counsel is for information and to have local connections. The best local counsel are active in their local bar association and/or Inns of Court. Excluding improper ex parte communications or other unethical influence, it is really helpful when the judge recognizes and respects our local counsel. Educating lead counsel about the judge is another area that is really helpful. You are our eyes and ears on the ground in the local venue.

4. What do you know about opposing counsel? Ditto from above. Even if not friendly or social, do you have–or can you develop–the kind of rapport with opposing counsel that will easily facilitate extension requests or other courtesies? Does opposing counsel have a pattern? Are they lazy until the last 90 days before trial? Do they always fight hard and then settle? Are they competent in front of a jury? Do they know the judge well? Even if you don’t know the answers to these questions, you should have the resources (i.e., connections within the local bar) to ferret them out.

5. What makes your venue potentially unique? This goes back to not assuming anything. The procedural routines you’ve dealt with your entire career may be completely unique and unfamiliar to your lead counsel. Think of this on both micro and macro levels.

6. Exponentially increase lead time. I’ll confess this has been a personal challenge, but you absolutely must think far in advance and let your lead counsel know about upcoming events and deadlines.

A perfect example is California’s summary judgment procedure. I cannot speak to how summary judgment motions are scheduled in other jurisdictions, but the California Code of Civil Procedure requires dispositive motions be heard 30 days before trial. The Code also requires 75 days notice (assuming personal service) of the motion (with additional notice if served by mail, overnight, etc.). While this seems easy to calculate, the rub comes with the clogged dockets of our virtually bankrupt state court system, which can make it all but impossible to ultimately schedule a hearing date within the necessary window if a party does not begin the scheduling process very early. There is authority which suggests the court’s docket, etc. cannot deny a party the right to bring a dispositive motion, but the practical impact of delay will include expensive additional, sometimes nail-biting  procedures, like ex parte applications to have motions specially set the hearing and/or to reduce notice.

7. Communicate, communicate, communicate with lead counsel. And then make sure you communicate some more. Seriously.

8. Don’t friggin’ poach the client. The idea behind taking this work is not as an angle toward poaching the client away from lead counsel. If you see it otherwise, you’re not doing anyone, including yourself, any favors.

9. Do what you can to make lead counsel shine in the eyes of the client. When you’re hired by a general counsel, legal staff member or claims adjuster, it should be an important goal to make that person look good in the eyes of those to whom they answer, whether it is a board of directors, a more senior legal staff member or a claims superintendent. When you get a local counsel gig, make it a goal to make your lead counsel shine in the eyes of their client.

Because I am at the stage in my career where I am aggressively building my own practice, I take opportunities to act as local counsel for what they are–great opportunities to work for new clients and with different lawyers. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same.

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American Lawyer, Eastern Mindset

I have long found much to admire about Keith Lee’s writing in his well-regarded Associate’s Mind blog. His voice is intelligent, but accessible. His tone is informed, but not condescending. His consistent message about the state of our profession is tough, but not without optimism.

I was pleased to find all of these qualities and more in his recently published first book, The Marble And The Sculptor.

What I particularly appreciate about Lee’s thoughts, as expressed in his words, is how they are often infused with precious pearls of Eastern wisdom. It is refreshing, at a time when the business of law threatens to eclipse what was once regarded as a noble profession, to encounter a fellow lawyer who strives to penetrate deeper into what it means to undertake a legal education, to prepare for and pass the bar examination and, finally, to carve out one’s own place within our profession. The decision to commit to this profession is a serious one, and Lee invariably addresses these issues with unflinching candor.

As an undergraduate student of Western philosophy, I occasionally flirted in a superficial way with Eastern thinking on issues of metaphysics, epistemology and religion. But I never let my guard down or did the work necessary to really grasp the Eastern mind. Again, when my wife and I traveled throughout Asia during our sabbatical, I was confronted and tried to learn about the Eastern religions, the teachings of the Buddha, the Hindu belief system and others, including radical Jainism. But regardless of my immersion, those teachings remained essentially foreign to my Western-bred mind.

Lee forces me to revisit the Eastern mind, but to apply that way of thinking to my own chosen profession as a lawyer attempting to practice here, in America. As the rapidly growing blawgosphere demonstrates, pretty much anybody can write about law. The difference in reading Lee is not only that he has something to say, but what he says carries a much larger, often universal import. His how-to manual for newly-minted lawyers would not require much revision to serve as a how-to manual for success in any career, or even in life. I believe it is his Eastern mindset that gives Lee’s words their added wisdom, their depth.

Much of Lee’s advice for succeeding both as a law student and a lawyer comes down to one quality: discipline. It’s not an accident that Lee came to law school, as he puts it, “a bit later in life” at twenty-seven. After college, he spent a year as a runner/project assistant/gopher at a large law firm. Yet, even after this experience cemented his certainty that he wanted to be a lawyer, he did not enter law school right away, but instead moved to Canada to train as an ichi deshi to a shihan (master) for nearly a year. He briefly describes this experience as

” . . . crazy and awesome and painful and beautiful — one of the best and most difficult experiences in my life. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to encapsulate in words. Sleeping in a storage closet under the stairs in the basement of the dojo on a thin mat. Subsisting primarily on rice, vegetables and PB&Js (okay, and beer on occasion). Training five to eight hours a day, five to six days a week. Bleeding toes and cracked ribs. Scrubbing toilets and washing mats. Friendships gained and lost. Intense spiritual moments of training and camaraderie, intense times of loneliness and introspection. No TV, no movies, no cellphone.” (Id. at 97-98.)

Not exactly Club Med. But perfect training for the mental discipline needed to become a successful professional. Describing the training during this period, Lee writes:

“After the lecture there would be an hour or so breakdown on one technique, perhaps one movement. A pivot or a shift of hips or moving into position against your partner. A single movement could be repeated hundreds of times. Occasionally I would be told the movement was correct. Mostly I would be told that the movement was wrong.

It was aggravating. It was boring. It was difficult. Deliberate, long, tiresome, and trying. After the tenth repetition of a movement I would grow bored. At the thirtieth, my mind started to wander. At the sixtieth I was barely concentrating. At the hundredth, my mind had become still and there was only the movement.” (Id. at 98.)

This focus on discipline as the key to growth as a lawyer is echoed throughout The Marble And The Sculptor. From one’s selection of law school electives, to developing key relationships, to balancing the competing demands of family and law school and, later, law practice, he returns again and again to the notion of discipline. Lee writes:

“Every lawyer, every person you meet, was once young, naive, and ignorant as you are. It is now your personal responsibility–no one else’s–to mature and develop into a competent lawyer who is fit to be trustworthy of a client’s problems.” (Id. at 21.)

Another vein that travels throughout the book is the notion of humility, which I believe also finds its genesis in his Eastern studies. There is a tendency, after you’ve devoted years of your life and a small fortune to finish law school, excelled on law review or moot court or whatever, to take yourself pretty seriously as a brand new lawyer. Lee gently reminds readers that, as new lawyers, you don’t know shit.

But his purpose isn’t to cut baby lawyers down. Rather, Lee is interested in teaching the kind of humility that is found in Eastern thought and easily seen in the martial arts, in the interest of helping you on your path to becoming a professional. He writes:

“After obtaining my black belt, did I consider myself a master? When I received my JD and passed the Bar, did I consider myself an expert lawyer? Of course not. They’re ridiculous propositions.

Traditionally, a black belt has only meant one thing: you were now considered a serious student. Everything before was playtime. Training wheels. Getting a black belt only signifies that you have mastered the basics and are ready to begin dedicated study. The same is true with a JD. Having a JD doesn’t indicate mastery of the law. It’s merely a signifier that you are probably ready to step onto the playing field. What follows is up to you.” (Id. at 102-03 (emphasis in original).)

Readers of Lee’s blog, as well as his new book, quickly learn that his choice of title for the blog, Associate’s Mind, was no accident, but reflects this essentially Eastern attitude of humility toward our profession. He writes:

“So, during my final year of law school, I started a legal blog titled Associate’s Mind, a play on words of a concept in Zen known as shoshin, or ‘beginner’s mind.’ A ‘beginner’s mind’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

I wanted to adopt this mindset in my practice of law. The idea that an associate should be flexible and open to new ideas and processes, while being mindful of the guidance of those who have tread the road before them. ” (Id. at xii.)

I encourage you to read Lee’s new book, and to subscribe and follow Associate’s Mind. You will find there pearls of the kind of wisdom our profession desperately needs at this difficult time.

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How Well Should You Know Your Arbitrator?

This cautionary tale comes from a case called Mt. Holyoke Homes, L.P., v. Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, LLP (No. B243912). The facts are straightforward. Mt. Holyoke Homes hired Los Angeles law firm Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell to provide legal services in connection with a real estate development.

When lawyers at the Jeffer firm failed to timely challenge the California Coastal Commission’s exercise of jurisdiction over Mt. Holyoke’s application for a development permit, Mt. Holyoke sued the firm for legal malpractice. Jeffer Mangels petitioned to compel arbitration, which was required under its engagement agreement with Mt. Holyoke. The law firm also sought to recover unpaid legal fees.

The parties jointly selected Retired Judge Eli Chernow to serve as the arbitrator over the malpractice action. According to the case, Judge Chernow made the following disclosures at the outset of his engagement:

“Judge Chernow disclosed that Defendants’ counsel had represented a party to a mediation before him within the past five years, but stated that he was not aware of any relationship with any party or attorney involved in this matter that would impair his ability to act fairly and impartially. Judge Chernow later disclosed that he had known Benjamin Reznik for many years. He also disclosed that he had conducted an arbitration and a mediation involving Adler more than five years earlier. The parties agreed to his appointment as arbitrator despite these disclosures.”

Judge Chernow ultimately issued an award in Jeffer Mangels’ favor on the grounds that its members had not breached the applicable standard of care nor caused Mt. Holyoke’s damages. He awarded the law firm $18,132.81 in unpaid legal fees, $285,000 in attorney fees incurred in connection with the arbitration, and over $150,000 in costs.

Smelling a rat, one of the Mt. Holyoke plaintiffs scoured the internet looking for evidence of bias on the part of the arbitrator. According to the case:

“She discovered for the first time a previously undisclosed resume in which Judge Chernow had named Robert Mangels, a name partner in JMBM, as a reference. She found a link to the resume on the Internet site of the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals. Mangels was the first of three “References” listed on the resume.”

Reasonable minds will differ on whether this was really smoking gun evidence of bias. Judge Chernow signed a declaration attesting to the fact that the “resume” had been prepared 10 years earlier and that “he had listed Mangels as a reference only because Mangels was a well-known and highly-regarded litigator who was familiar with his abilities as a neutral.”

The trial court, unimpressed with the internet revelations, granted Jeffer’s petition to confirm the arbitration award and denied Mt. Holyoke’s petition to vacate the award. But—you guessed it—Mt. Holyoke appealed, and the California Court of Appeal held that it was error for the trial court to deny the petition to vacate the award based on the revelations of Judge Chernow’s . . . er . . . sordid past with Robert Mangles. The Court said:

“ . . . the connection between the undisclosed fact of the arbitrator’s naming an attorney as a reference on his resume and the subject matter of the arbitration, a legal malpractice action against the law firm in which the same attorney is a partner, is sufficiently close that a person reasonably could entertain a doubt that the arbitrator could be impartial. We conclude that Judge Chernow was required to disclose the fact that he had listed Mangels as a reference on his resume. Judge Chernow did not state in his declaration that at the time of his required disclosures he was not aware that he had listed Mangels as a reference on his resume, and there appears to be no reasonable dispute that he was aware of that fact at that time. His failure to timely disclose this ground for disqualification of which he was then aware compels the vacation of the arbitrator’s award.”

The real loser here is Jeffer Mangels or its malpractice carrier, who now have to re-try and, presumably, re-win the malpractice case. Perhaps there really was bias, though I doubt it. Judge Chernow is a pretty well-respected neutral. However, this case highlights the risks if you don’t know your arbitrator really, really well (or if you actually do know your arbitrator really, really well). I never said arbitration wasn’t risky, expensive and unpredictable.

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Learn To Give “Value-In-Advance”

Much of my approach to marketing my law practice derives from the two years I had one-on-one business development coaching sessions with Bob Kohn of Kohn Communications. First and foremost, he helped me get past the discomfort I had with asking for business (though I’ll confess this is still tough for me). In particular, he helped me appreciate that offering my services as a lawyer is quite different from trying to recruit a friend into Amway.

Even if one-on-one business development coaching is beyond your means, you can still benefit from the Kohn Communications model, since Bob and his brother Larry distilled their approach into a fine book, Selling in Your Comfort Zone (ABA 2009). One of the strategies Bob taught me, which he discusses in the book is giving “value-in-advance.” To do it justice, I’m going to skip my own description of this concept and simply quote the Kohns:

“‘Value-in-advance’ is the strategy of offering something for free as a way of allowing your targets to experience a sample of the benefits that you offer. If you were selling a product, then ‘value-in-advance’ might be a sample of the product.” (Id. at 71.)

According to the Kohns, value-in-advance serves multiple purposes. Among these–and why it is especially useful for me–is that it creates a reason/opportunity to reach out to one’s targets that is, at its best, positive and, at worst, neutral. In other words, by trying to offer something valuable in advance, you are taking an uncomfortable, potentially negative experience, and making it a hopefully positive one for both you and your target. Even if the “value” you offer in advance is not ultimately useful to your target, the exchange will likely be viewed at worst as neutral.

The Kohns point to how Gillette sent free Mach III razors to potential customers as a simple example of value-in-advance. Because I sell information, advice, strategy and representation rather than razor blades, I prefer to provide information, advice and strategy in advance, whether it is by an alert, a speech/presentation or providing counseling without charging for my time. Further, since I practice in an area–employment law–which experiences almost constant changes in the law, I truly believe that the information I provide for free brings value to my audience, or targets.

Many people I consider business development “targets” are not really potential clients. Rather, they are often folks whom I believe are, or will be, positioned to refer potential clients to me at some point in the future. For some reason I don’t completely understand, I find it much easier to “sell” myself to referral sources than to prospective clients. In any event, another type of value-in-advance which the Kohns discuss, and which I find both easy and valuable, is to bring together–through introductions–people whom I believe will benefit in some meaningful way from knowing one another. One example could be introducing a lawyer or accountant who specializes in the entertainment industry with a contact in the entertainment industry who could benefit from their services.

The Kohns discuss this kind of giving value-in-advance as follows:

“Introducing quality people to each other communicates compatibility and capability. It demonstrates that you know quality people. And, as those people interact with each other, it strengthens their emotional connection to you.” (Id. at 73.)

One would be naive to ignore the potential risks of making introductions, and I don’t make them blindly. The Kohns acknowledge these risks. They say:

“Many people are afraid to make introductions because of the possibility that the people you introduce may not get along. Or worse, they may do a deal that goes badly. It is important that when you make an introduction, you are proud of the people you are introducing. Also, you don’t need to make warranties. Rather, you should state that you are introducing people with the understanding that they get to know each other and decide for themselves if they feel comfortable working together.” (Id. at 75.)

Venture capitalist Mark Suster, who is not only a friend, but also someone I’ve come to view as a kind of “success mentor,” creates an even stronger argument for being “judicious” in deciding whether and to whom to make introductions. In his blog, Both Sides of the Table, he writes:

“Intros. They’re the lifeblood of networking – the currency of mavens. They are your route to angel money. Your entrée to sales meetings.

We couldn’t live without them.

But when misused, overused or abused they can diminish your personal brand, consume your valuable time and waste time of the relationships you value the most.

* * *

[H]ere’s the thing – every time you send an introduction you’re obligating people. At a minimum you’re obligating them to ignore the email and feel like an arse for not responding to your introduction. More likely they either end up finding an excuse not to meet, delaying a meeting indefinitely or in most cases actually taking a meeting.

Over-introducers also consume a lot of personal time in making intros. It is very time consuming doing intros the right way. Ask yourself the tough question about how you might spend that time more productively getting your job done well.”

Suster’s post has some useful thoughts and guidelines on when to make (or not make) introductions, and I recommend it.

The real takeaway here is that giving value-in-advance, whether through free razor blades, alerts about employment law developments or making quality introductions, can be a terrific way to market your product or practice without overtly marketing your product or practice. Check out the Kohns’ book for other ideas.

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When Should You Hire Local Counsel?

Being lawyers, many of us suffer from the tendency to believe we can service all of our clients needs, whatever they are and wherever they take us. I think part of the reason is that, as professionals, we naturally like to control everything, and the thought of relinquishing any little bit of control causes anxiety. I suspect another reason has to do with a worry that other lawyers are direct competitors, even if their practices differ geographically or in terms of subject matter.

I hesitate to suggest that we’re worried the other lawyer will do a better job for our client (though they might), but it’s scary to think another firm, even if hired as a partner in a particular case or project, will take the opportunity to aggressively pursue our client, to take it/them away from us permanently.

Yet another concern could arise from a fear that, if we involve another professional and they do a less-than-stellar job or overcharge our client, or both, it will reflect poorly on us. It surely will, on some level, at least if we are involved in selecting and/or hiring the associated professional.

On a purely rational level, we know these concerns shouldn’t prevent us from doing what’s best for our clients. If that means hiring a tax specialist because a deal or case raises issues outside our skill set, it’s generally a no-brainer decision. Similarly, if I’m a litigator licensed only in California and I’m handling a case in, say, Nevada, which requires the involvement of a lawyer who is both licensed and venued in Nevada, even if I am admitted pro hac vice, I won’t let my poaching fears prevent me from doing the right thing.

But what about a borderline case. For example, I most often practice in the Los Angeles area. I know the courts, the procedures and many of the judges in LA, Orange County, Ventura, Santa Barbara (because I actually live in SB), Riverside and San Bernardino. If I am assigned to handle a case in Bakersfield, or Fresno, or even San Diego, should I be thinking about hiring local counsel in those venues?

I want to suggest the answer is yes, I should at least think about whether it makes sense to involve a local counsel in any case that I’m planning to handle that is as far away as Bakersfield is from LA, even if, after I think about it, I conclude it is unnecessary. In other words, it is an issue that should be spotted and resolved just like any other.

I recognize this doesn’t really advance the ball, because it doesn’t provide any guidance when one should, not only consider hiring a local lawyer, but actually do it. Here are some thoughts on this bigger question.

1. Hire local counsel when you have reason to believe you will be “home-towned.” What does this mean? I see “home-towned” as any instance in which your client could suffer prejudice from the fact you are foreign to the jurisdiction. This is not always readily apparent, and could require some impression gathering from colleagues or acquaintances. I’ve long heard, for example, that judges and juries in San Diego do not receive Los Angeles lawyers well. I could speculate forever on the genesis of this (assuming it is true), but I’ve heard it over and over.

Now, this does not mean I think it’s necessary to hire a local San Diego lawyer or firm  every time I have a case pending there. Rather, it is more likely that I would only hire someone local if my case was clearly headed to trial, or if there was some unusual issue that made me think my client would benefit at all from having someone local there with or instead of me. The possible scenarios are endless. It’s a judgment call.

2. Hire local counsel when you’re in a venue that has strange or unfamiliar procedural rules. In California, we are required to comply with the California Code of Civil Procedure, the California Rules of Court, the Local Rules of the county and, often, the judge’s own rules. And we hope none of these conflict. Sometimes we encounter a county or judge with some bizarro rules about how things must be filed or served, or both. I can tell you there is nothing more comforting than being able to pick up the phone and talk to someone who regularly appears in the particular court, before the particular judge.

3. Hire local counsel when it’s otherwise a good idea and you can hire someone whom your judge knows and respects. This can be particularly important if your opposition knows the judge well.

4. Hire local counsel when you expect the entire jury will speak with an accent you don’t have. I’ll admit to occasionally having Southern Drawl Envy. You know what I mean if you’ve ever had to speak at a conference and follow some smooth-talking  storyteller from South Carolina or Georgia or someplace. It can be humbling to realize how utterly ordinary we sound.

5. Hire local counsel when there’s a reason to think some past event or news will cause your client to suffer geographical prejudice. Did your client just shutter a factory in the town where you’re about to start trial, putting hundreds or thousands out of work? You’re going to need to deal with that, and a local perspective will be valuable.

One final word. The verb “hire” as used here doesn’t mean your client needs to break the bank with yet another full-time billing machine. Often, it will suffice to have the local counsel merely available for consultation purposes, or to help pick the jury, or participate in a particular hearing.  The additional investment should be minimal and could pay dividends.

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Don’t Forget: Jurors Are Quite Literally Everywhere

Few of us aspire to be a briefcase carrier when we start law school, but that’s what many of us find ourselves doing when we first pass the bar. At least if we’re lucky. I know everyone might not share this view, but it can be pretty nice to get paid to finish the education you started in law school by carrying the briefcase for a lawyer who’s been trying cases for a while. Not everyone is a good role model just because they’ve got experience but, as I’ve said before, you can learn at least one thing from every lawyer you meet.

One of the first things I learned during my bag carrying apprenticeship was not to forget when you were in trial, or about to start a trial, that jurors, or potential jurors, are literally everywhere around the courthouse.

I learned this the hard way, of course, when I made the mistake of talking loudly about the our motions in limine with the partner as we were walking out of the courtroom. “Shhhh,” he said. I didn’t know at first what he was talking about; it seemed like we were all alone in the hallway, or alone enough, so that I could speak freely. “The walls have ears,” he said. I still didn’t understand until, a few steps later, I noticed the familiar face of one of our prospective jurors, leaning against the wall, reading a dog-eared paperback.

When we got outside, and we were very clearly alone, he said, “Remember when you’re in trial that jurors are literally everywhere. And they hear and see everything.”

I was reminded of this point last week when working with Juryology blogger Rich Matthews on drafting a post about working with jury consultants. Rich pointed out that jurors pay attention to how parties and their lawyers act outside the courtroom. Are you or your client rude or impatient in getting through the security screening process coming into the courthouse? What about in the courthouse cafeteria during lunch? It is all information and they take it into the deliberation room.

I knew about one prominent LA trial lawyer who had done well, and owned a couple of exotic cars, but would only drive his Jeep Grand Cherokee when he was in trial. He felt it was important for jurors who saw him arrive at the courthouse (or leave at the end of the day) to see him driving a sensible, American-made car.

When someone at my firm is in trial, associates are encouraged to come down to watch at least a portion of the proceedings. But they are admonished in advance to (1) dress well, (2) behave with extreme decorum in the courtroom, and (3) do nothing to create the impression they are affiliated with the firm or the client, lest the impression they create is a poor one.

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Don’t Try This Alternative Fee Arrangement At Home

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Lawyers, on the whole, make pretty poor business owners. Ask any MBA graduate or marketing guru. I never gave this a second thought during my first decade of practice, when I was too busy wondering why I wasn’t earning as much as some of my classmates (while admittedly earning more than others) to think about the bottom line. It turns out, however, that stars really must align in order for a billed hour to ripen into a collected greenback. A client is needed who not only can afford to pay, but who will pay. This axiom is apparently so obvious that most law schools don’t waste even a minute teaching it. Go figure.

Talk of alternative fee arrangements is all the rage. While opinions differ about which arrangements work, or are really “alternative,” I can identify one arrangement that is virtually guaranteed to fail, eventually: I call it the “hourly-contingency” model.

I was introduced to the mechanics of the hourly-contingency model by a colleague with whom I worked a few years back. I considered him a dunce then, and I remember him as one now. But I’ve come to realize that the hourly-contingency model as he structured it — however inadvertently — is actually a common practice by litigators everywhere, from solo practitioners to BigLaw firms.

Here’s what I’m talking about. A client finds her way into your office with a set of facts that simply scream for redress. It’s a business spat, a breached contract or a real estate deal gone bad. Her case is sufficiently textbook. There are promising facts on the plus side and manageable details on the negative. The biggest plus of all is a solvent defendant. You discuss costs; she’s prepared to pay. You sign her up and you’re off to the races.

Things start out well. The opposition balks at your demand. This was expected. You file a complaint, exchange discovery, some documents, emails, computer files, etc. Some key early depositions are conducted. The facts that made the case attractive remain strong and you continue to believe you can manage the negatives. But one thing does change: your client, so gung-ho to sue and so prompt to pay at the outset, has been slow to return calls and even slower to pay her bill. As soon as her A/R hits 90 days you call her in for the “talk.”

As you expected, money has gotten tight. Your client still wants to pursue the case and promises to pay, but just simply can’t right now. You extract a small check toward her A/R, send her on her way and privately vow to handle the case more “economically” going forward, at least until your client gets current.

Only your client never gets current. And your opposition decides to ramp things up, making it impossible to handle the case more economically. A few months and another “talk” with the client yield nothing, not even another check toward her now rapidly growing A/R. Well, you think, the case should settle soon, and she can get current with the proceeds …

Where the story goes from here doesn’t matter. Or, actually, it makes all the difference, and that proves my point. Either the case settles or gets tried, a favorable result is reached and the client pays up, or things don’t go well and you end up eating a substantial chunk of your bill. When this happened to my … er … colleague, he ended up eating about $80,000 in unpaid fees, not because the client did not want to pay, but because she couldn’t and he had allowed the case to get into this unfortunate posture.

The hourly-contingency case. You bill clients for your time, but there’s no guarantee you’ll collect unless you win. But it’s not a true contingency fee because there’s no bonus for a great result to justify the gamble of taking the case on contingency. It’s not what either the lawyer or the client intended, but both acted in concert, if purely through inertia, to allow it to happen.

How do you keep an hourly case from unintentionally going contingency? It turns out it’s not terribly complicated, but it does require discipline. And it begins with a retainer check. I left this out of the hypo above, and I could just hear readers muttering under their breath, “Of course there’s a retainer, right?”

I left out the part about the retainer because lots of lawyers do business with new clients without a retainer. It’s not because lawyers, even those who lack business acumen, do not understand the wisdom of collecting a retainer up front, it’s that we really don’t enjoy doing it. It’s an uncomfortable conversation. But it’s a necessary one. Lawyers who are diligent about getting a retainer fee are less likely to get stuck holding the bag if a case, a client, or both go south.

Lawyers and clients can agree to apply the retainer to the first billings, or for the funds to be held in client trust until the close of the case, and applied to unpaid invoices or refunded at that time. Beware: all but the wealthiest clients will want — and may expect — the retainer to be applied right away. But this would be no help at all in our hypothetical above. The upshot is that it takes discipline, both to ask for the retainer, and to retain the retainer until the case is closed and the client is current.

If it takes discipline to protect yourself with a retainer, it takes far greater discipline to recognize you’re sliding into the hourly-contingency situation and to cut the client off. This is particularly true if, as in our hypothetical, you share your client’s belief in the quality of her case. And could there be a more uncomfortable conversation? The temptation exists to believe if you just hang on a little bit longer the case will settle and you’ll get paid.

It’s only with discipline, by tempering that temptation, that you can prevent a case that’s headed for the hourly-contingency sinkhole from getting there. Leave this particular alternative fee arrangement for someone else.

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What Your Presence Tells The Jury Before You Say A Word

I’ve previously written about how young lawyers enjoy an undeserved reputation for honesty. It’s a gift. Don’t squander it.

Similarly, when jurors encounter a trial lawyer for the first time, the lawyer’s mere presence in the courtroom says many things before the lawyer opens her mouth. This observation comes from the trusted Professor McElhaney. In a chapter from Litigation (ABA 1995) entitled “The Most Important Witness,” he suggests that a trial lawyer’s presence in the courtroom implicitly says to the jury:

  • “I have studied the facts and understand what this dispute is all about. You can trust me to steer you straight.
  • I have carefully screened the witnesses. I will only call those who will tell you the truth.
  • I know the law that governs this case. Justice is on our side.
  • If I introduce evidence, it is because it is important.
  • If I leave something out, it is because it is not important.
  • And If I attack a witness, it is because he is not telling the truth.” (Id. at 9.)

Of course, just as with a young lawyer’s unearned reputation for honesty, each of the above assumptions can be quickly proven wrong. Witness choice is a perfect example. While you sometimes have no choice but to present a dodgy witness, this should not be undertaken lightly. As Professor McElhaney points out:

“[T]he very act of putting the witness on the stand implies that you are vouching for his credibility. . . . Whom do the jurors blame for a bad witness? Listen closely to the comments clerks and bailiffs hear every day. ‘I wonder where she got that guy?’ ‘Where did he dig him up?’ ‘Can’t he find someone better than that?'” (Id. at 11.)

Another opportunity to prove the jury wrong in their initial positive impression arises from how you organize your evidence presentation, including direct examination of your witnesses. How you conduct the examination, what you leave in and what you leave out can affirm or undermine the assumption that “If I introduce evidence, it is because it is important.” As McElhaney says it:

“A confused, rambling examination suggests a disorganized understanding of the facts. Not only does it fail to tell the story effectively, a poor direct examination is the living picture of a guide who cannot be trusted to lead a jury through the thicket of facts in the case.

Dwelling at length on small points is a little different. At first it suggests that the seemingly insignificant detail will become important later on.

Why? Just putting it in the case says it is worth the jury’s while.

So the first time the fact that took so long to explain turns out to be meaningless, the jury feels cheated. When it happens again, they wonder whether the lawyer is trying to kick sand in their faces or is just inept.” (Id.)

The jurors are your friends, your students and your wards. Don’t kick sand in their faces.

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Law Students: Let’s Make A Deal!

I was really pleased to come across this article in the ABA Journal about Drexel University Professor Karl Okamoto, who has created a moot court-type experience dedicated to helping students hone skills needed to practice transactional law. I know the focus of this blog is generally on litigation and trial skills, but I applaud Professor Okamoto for coming up with something new and inspiring to fill the huge void for students who don’t want to litigate, or maybe just want to get a taste for what deal lawyers do. I hope similar programs become more widely available.

I probably speak for a lot of litigators who feel that they did not so much choose to go the litigation route as settle for what was available. Certainly, when I dreamt of becoming a lawyer I pictured myself in a courtroom. And I spend a fair amount of time there. But I spend an equal or greater amount of time either chained to a computer drafting motions and discovery responses or taking depositions. If I had learned something about doing deals early on, who knows . . .

Almost every transaction lawyer I know enjoys his or her practice more than the average litigator I know. The only exception to this comes from the fact that transactional law, M & A, real estate deals, private placement, public offerings and the like, seems to be a cyclical practice. At least in the past two decades, it’s been feast or famine for a lot of the deal lawyers I know, particularly at BigLaw firms. That’s not to say that litigation isn’t cyclical. In fact, I’m told we’re in a down cycle in many litigation practice areas right now.

The number of students who spend their second year summer in a BigLaw summer associate program has been shrinking. I know that neither BigLaw nor these programs are everybody’s cup of tea. On the other hand, up until now such programs have been the only opportunity most law students (and many lawyers) ever get to experience how transactional law is practiced.

Here’s how Professor Okamoto’s moot transaction program, LawMeets, works:

“[S]tudents get fact patters for a deal and play the roles of buyer, seller and client. Over a period of months, they have conferences; draft, exchange and mark up documents; and then negotiate the deal. Prominent transactional lawyers judge their documents and negotiations, as well as offer feedback. Then the students get to watch the pros haggle over the same terms. ‘That’s when we think the “ahas” begin,’ Okamoto says.”

One added benefit I can immediately see to this program is how it forces students to complete a project over several months, which is much more similar to an actual law practice, where it is necessary to sustain focus on a deal (or a case, or several cases) over a longer period of time, often punctuated by short periods of frenzied activity.

The other interesting approach is asking the judges to demonstrate how they would handle the same situation. This could influence the way trial advocacy and moot court competitions are taught, though it might make it more difficult to find judges who’ll volunteer, not only to judge the competition, but also demonstrate their skills.

Kudos to Professor Okamoto!

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Should You Do A Post-Trial “Postmortem”?

Living through trial. The only thing most of us think about is winning. (Unless, like me, you get that 11 pm craving for carne asada burritos con guacamole, then you think about that, too.) After the verdict, win or lose, the last thing everybody wants is to go back through it and take stock of what happened, what went well or went poor and how we can do better next time.

But there is real wisdom, once the dust truly settles, in going back over everything to ponder, “What did we learn from this?” For institutional clients of every size, trials are a huge investment of time, money and resources. It makes a lot of sense for them, ideally in conjunction with their counsel, to do a trial postmortem. This not only helps prevent future “situations” requiring litigation but, if cases do arise in the future, it enhances the chances of success. Astute lawyers recognize the value and opportunities of this process and collaborate with their clients to do a comprehensive postmortem, possibly for free! Even if the client shows no interest, much can still be gained if only the members of the trial team come together for a postmortem session.

A generous article on this topic, “Trial ‘After Action Reviews,'” appeared in the August, 2013 issue of For the Defense. The authors, Milwaukee lawyers Ric Gass and Michael B. Brennan, point out that “Army generals as far back as Caesar in his ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’ have learned strategic and tactical lessons through after action reports.” (Id. at 29) The article is sweeping in its scope. Among the valuable points made by the authors was the following:

“Crucial to the success of an after action review is, to use the military jargon, ‘leaving your rank at the door.’ If you are the lead counsel, you need to be willing to listen and to learn from the observations of others on your team. You were probably too busy while doing that crucial cross-examination to take in everything else in the courtroom, such as reactions of jurors, or of the judge or opposing counsel. But your co-counsel, your paralegal, or your jury consultant did watch for those reactions, and you need to hear what they saw.” (Id.)

The authors suggest some topics for review during the postmortem, including:

  • Jury Research: “Did the jury research accurately predict the attitudes and reactions of the jurors and the ultimate result on liability and damages?” (Id.)
  • Opening: “What worked well for us? What worked well for opposing counsel?” (Id.)
  • Direct Examinations: “Did a certain witness’s testimony connect with the jury, and if so, why?” (Id.)
  • Cross-Examinations: “Was the tone of the questions too harsh or too lenient? . . . How many of the admissions made on cross-examination made it into the closing argument?” (Id. at 30.)
  • Expert Witnesses: “Would we use this expert again, and more importantly, why?” (Id.)
  • Closings: “What worked well for each party, and why?” (Id.)

Finally, the authors point out that:

“Being a trial lawyer is a lifelong learning experience. . . . If you have had any kind of trial, but especially a major trial, you need to appreciate it for all the experience it brings and to wring every last piece of learning that you can from the experience. . . . [Y]ou need to figure out how to carry that understanding and the techniques that went right to your next trial.” (Id.)

I know first-hand how much clients appreciate it if, after the trial, you offer to travel to their offices and help your in-house counterpart prepare and present a postmortem, with the specific goal of avoiding similar situations in the future. They really, really appreciate it when you don’t charge them for the experience. If your trial counsel won’t do this for you, ask them why not. Then remember to call me.

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Legal Education: Less Is Not Necessarily More

The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday discussing the ongoing debate whether the traditional course of study for a law degree, which is a prerequisite in most states for admission to practice, should be reduced from three years to just two. Even President Obama, who is both the product of a traditional three-year Juris Doctor program and a former legal educator, weighed in somewhat in favor of a change. The biggest factor spurring this debate seems to be the skyrocketing costs of law school.

I approach this question with the following background. I graduated from a high second-tier law school in 1993. I paid my own way through law school, amassing about $80,000 in loans. I had accepted an offer at an insurance defense firm where I had been clerking for 2 years; my starting salary was $52,000. It took me about 11 (painful) years to pay off my student loans. I give this background to make clear that I don’t come at this issue from the perspective of the academic elite, nor did I finish school without a job.

My experience working for various small firms, mid-sized litigation firms, and now at an AmLaw 150 firm tells me that reducing the amount of training, whether it is Socratic classroom lectures or on-the-job clinical training, will not serve anyone’s interests. Beyond reducing the cost/debt of law school, it will not benefit newly-minted lawyers, who would spring from the costly but generally encouraging womb of  law school with even less to offer than at present. It will not benefit most law firms that (unlike my own) do not or cannot afford to invest in providing their lawyers with systematic, ongoing training on how to write, argue, advocate at trial or negotiate. Most importantly, it will not benefit clients who find themselves saddled with a new lawyer that was not sufficiently trained before being ejected from the nest.

The rising cost of law school, and resulting debt for students who may or may not be able to secure a job that exploits their training and compensates them accordingly is a real problem. It’s a terrible problem. But I do not believe that the solution lies in grinding future lawyers harder during their first two years, then turning them loose to commit malpractice at the expense of unsuspecting clients any sooner.

I have written here and here that law schools should increase the amount of real-world experience students receive before they graduate. If this can be done in a way that reduces the expense of the third year of school, then it would be a win-win. Even after I secured my first paying job as a law clerk, I still did some pro bono work in a law clerk capacity, both because it made me feel good and I gained experience I could include on my resume. Providing there is adequate supervision, many third year students could earn credits performing similar activities, which should both reduce their education tab and boost access to justice for the underserved.

BigLaw firms like my own have increasingly become involved in pro bono initiatives in which they “partner” with client legal staffs to tackle larger pro bono opportunities. This is clearly a win-win for the law firm, which gets to show off its lawyers’ skills, and for the beneficiaries of the pro bono projects, who enjoy enthusiastic, top drawer legal talent. Perhaps such “partnering” could be expanded to include third year law students, creating a win-win-win, as students get to interface with law firm leaders while showing off their enthusiasm and talent. Just a thought.

I applaud educators and others in the profession for trying to improve the situation for folks who want to practice law, a goal which should be pursued with boundless verve. On the other hand, snipping off that third year with no better substitute would be a regrettable choice.

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Beware The Words That Might Be Stuffed In Your Deponent’s Mouth

Anyone who has taken or even attended a deposition is at least somewhat familiar with the litany of admonitions that are customary before the substantive examination begins. These include explaining to the deponent, and generally asking her to confirm her understanding, how a deposition works, i.e., don’t answer unless you understand the question, use words not gestures when responding, etc.

I attended a deposition last week of two of my client’s experts for an upcoming trial. The questioning attorney, obviously reading from an outline or script that he either drafted or was provided to him, attempted to get both experts to buy into the following:

“Q. If  you answer a question without telling me you didn’t understand it, I’m going to take the position — if you try to later say you didn’t understand the question — that you did and you were trying to get out from under the answer.  Do you understand that?”

In each instance, although I objected, my deponent ultimately agreed with the statement. I expect if my opponent attempts to use the testimony at trial the judge will probably sustain my objections. But he might not. Which leads me to think I should have better prepared both deponents (both of whom, by the way, are seasoned expert witnesses, very familiar with the deposition process). I will certainly prepare future witnesses for this kind of question, particularly by this particular attorney (whom I do generally respect for his frequent creative, outside-the-box thinking and approach to his cases).

What’s the problem?

The question asks the witness, in a complete vacuum, to buy into a set of circumstances and motivations that have no basis. Folks who have spent time in the world of depositions know that this isn’t a perfect science. Questions are only rarely (if ever) perfect. However, even seasoned experts get swept into the unconscious desire to “help out” the examiner, sometimes answering questions that weren’t asked, were very poorly asked, or supplying missing terms that help a problem question make sense. It’s not fair to ask that witness, who later explains a “bad” answer by suggesting she did not fully understand the question when it was originally answered, to agree in advance that any such effort is really “trying to get out from under the answer.” No.

Hearing a witness try to “back pedal” out of a bad deposition response by suggesting she didn’t understand the question when it was first asked is generally going to be viewed with suspicion by the jury. This is particularly true if it happens more than once. So, it is not a huge issue how the deponent answers the question above. However, the admonitions generally occur at the start of the deposition. If an examiner asks questions like that at the outset and the deponent answers without realizing words are being stuffed into her mouth, there is a good chance that questions and testimony are coming later in the deposition that will create a dangerous record.

So be on the lookout!

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