Category Archives: Discovery

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

fdreDo you fight over discovery? Admit it. It’s ok, we’re all friends here, no?

Apparently lawyers still wage discovery battles. I won’t pretend that I’m immune. I still mix it up with the best of them. But I came across an article in the November, 2013 issue of Practical Law which attempts to make a compelling case why we might serve our clients better by adopting a spirit of cooperation.

In their article, “Learning to Cooperate,” Jonathan Redgrave and Peter Hennigan talk about The Cooperation Proclamation originally published by The Sedona Conference in 2008. They say:

“At the time of its release, The Cooperation Proclamation provided attorneys with a practical, if aspirational, framework to understand cooperation. Today, there is really no longer any question of whether or not counsel should cooperate in discovery. Cooperation is required by the current and proposed rules, expected by the courts and consistent with attorneys’ ethical obligations. Perhaps most important, cooperation is also what the clients want.” (Id. at 27.)

Well hold on now. Isn’t litigation an adversarial process? What about zealous advocacy? We’re talking about opposing parties and opposing counsel here, right?

Merriam-Webster defines “cooperation”–which, in case you wondered, is pronounced \(ˌ)kō-ˌä-pə-ˈrā-shən\–as “1 : the action of cooperating: common effort; 2 : association of persons for common benefit.”

“Common effort?” “Common benefit?” What!?! Your guy sued my guy, right? You’re demanding some ridiculous sum of money and, because my client won’t just pay you, you’ve prepared and filed a civil complaint, dragging my client into court, isn’t that right? Why on God’s green earth would my client want to make any common effort to do anything for your client’s benefit?

Before we get our dandruff up,† let’s stop for a second and find out what “cooperation” is supposed to mean in this context. Are we supposed to just give in? Roll over? Do our opponent’s job for them? The authors claim the answer is no.  Citing the Proclamation, Redgrave and Hennigan say:

“The Sedona Conference explicitly states that cooperation:

  •  Is not capitulation.

  • Is not an abdication of appropriate and vigorous advocacy.

  • Does not require volunteering legal theories to opposing counsel or suggesting paths along which discovery might take place.” (Id.citing The Case for Cooperation, 10 Sedona Conf. J., 339, 340, 359 (2009).)

What’s left? Here, the authors offer some “ABCs of Cooperation.” A few of these make a lot of sense:

  • “Be flexible. Like any negotiation, counsel may have to compromise or use alternative means to get the discovery or relief that the client needs.

  • Consider what discovery is truly needed, and not just desired.

  • Document the agreements reached with opposing counsel, as well as any areas of dispute, and try to obtain resolution without the court’s intervention where possible.” (Id. at 29.)

I can go along with these. But I think it needs to be said that the rationale underlying this spirit of cooperation should properly be that it ultimately benefits our clients. If done properly, cooperation in litigation and discovery saves our clients money. It makes their lives easier. As the authors point out:

“The best argument in favor of cooperation is that clients want it. Clients are beginning to realize that a scorched-earth approach to discovery, and the wasteful and time-consuming discovery disputes such an approach invites, rarely (if ever) serves their interests. Moreover, clients want cooperation because they recognize that being cooperative enhances their attorneys’ credibility with the court.” (Id.)

Where I part ways with the authors is their appeal to some other, ethereal motive for cooperation. They spend a lot of time citing various courts and model rules, etc. and harp on about “duties to the tribunal, the judicial system, opposing counsel and opposing parties.” (Id.) Blah, blah, blah. Save it! What matters at the end of the day–at least for those of us in the trenches–is getting the best possible outcome for our clients. If the straightest road to that result is through cooperation, I’m all for it. But let’s not forget it’s our client–not opposing counsel or opposing parties–who keeps the lights burning.  

†The earliest known citation for this strange saying was in the April, 1853 Wisconsin Tribune, wherein someone apparently wrote: “‘Well, gosh-all Jerusalem, what of it?’ now yelled the downeaster, getting his dandruff up.”


Edward Bennett Williams: Don’t Lose Your “Instinct For The Jugular”

8300330C_1I found a fantastic interview of trial legend Edward Bennett Williams from the Winter, 1986 issue of Litigation which I intend to read and re-read like the Bible.

Among the myriad of topics he discusses was the kind of “team” he works with at trial, which led to a discussion of trying “big document” cases. Many lawyers, even seasoned trial lawyers, tend to make the assumption that the bigger the issues to be decided by the jury, the more witnesses and paper–documents–are needed to prove a party’s case or defense. If an outsider was to simply look at the kind of discovery conducted in any big case, he or she would easily assume that, if the documents were worth seeking in costly discovery, they must have been germane and, ultimately, indispensable to winning.

Williams takes issue with this kind of thinking. He suggests that, in all but the most complex cases, lawyers tend to “multiply documents” unnecessarily. In the end, being unnecessarily document intensive does not further their clients’ interests or bring them closer to victory. Responding to interviewer Priscilla Anne Schwab, Williams says:

“Mr. Williams: I was brought up in a school of practice in which one person tried a case and tried it in toto. Even with some help, in the courtroom there was only one voice. And I like that.

Ms. Schwab: What about a complex case, say, an antitrust action with thousands of pages of documents, hundreds of witnesses. How can you handle that in a courtroom singlehandedly? With total control?

Mr. Williams: My impression of that so-called ‘big document’ case is that 95 percent of the documents are worthless. Just piles of paper to impress the jury. One of the great tragedies of litigation today is these paper wars. The whole profession gains nothing but disrepute when one of these big firms puts 21 lawyers on a case, and they start multiplying documents, paper times paper.

Now obviously in a few cases, the issues are so complex that there are, maybe, thousands of documents. But my experience has been that law firms multiply paper unnecessarily. They make litigation more prolific than necessary. They don’t have an instinct for the jugular. They don’t isolate the major issues of the case and simplify them into comprehensibility. And they engage in massive overkill in discovery.

Ms. Schwab: But there always seems to be a need for more discovery. You say yourself you must uncover every fact, however remotely relevant.

Mr. Williams: True, but discovery today is not used primarily to uncover facts. It’s used to delay, to obfuscate, and, too often, to replace real investigation.” Litigation, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter 1986, p.30.

As an armchair expert on the topic of laziness, I wonder if the tendency to use excessive discovery rather than going “for the jugular,” as Williams puts it, stems from the fact that isolating “the major issues of the case and simplify[ing] them into comprehensibility” takes really hard work and focused thought. I suspect this is part of it. I suspect the other part is related to the fact that there is big money in putting armies of lawyers on cases and multiplying paper. Cynical me!

Whatever the cause, the end result brings clients no closer to victory. So, even if you feel the need to burn everything to the ground in discovery, remember when it comes time to try the case to isolate the major issues and “simplify them into comprehensibility.”


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

ghfAnyone 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!


Preparing Your Witness For A “Reptile” Deposition

tyreIn my last post, I attempted to describe what has come to be known as the Reptile technique of discovery and trial presentation, as advocated in the book, Reptile: the 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution. Again, the goal with this technique is to invoke the reptilian brain of jurors, which thrives on evolution, and therefore maximizes “survival advantages” and minimizes “survival dangers.”

As Reptile becomes more common, it falls to us to ensure that our lay and expert witnesses are adequately prepared to deal with the technique during deposition. To better understand what your witness will be up against, here is an example of a Reptile examination of a medical expert concerning a doctor’s care:

“Q: Physicians are not allowed to needlessly endanger patients?

A: Correct.

Q: That’s the standard of care?

A: Yes.

Q: When diagnosing or treating, do doctors make choices?

A: Yes.

Q: Often, several available choices can achieve the same benefit?

A: Yes.

Q: Sometimes, some of those are more dangerous than others?

A: Yes.

Q: So you have to avoid selecting one of those more dangerous ones?

A: Correct.

Q: Because that’s what a prudent doctor would do?

A: Yes.

Q: Because when the benefit is the same, the extra danger is not allowed?

A: Yes.

Q: The standard of care should not allow extra danger unless it might work better or increase the odds of success?

A: Yes.

Q: So needless extra danger violates the standard of care?

A: Yes.

Q: And there’s no such thing as a standard of care that allows you to needlessly endanger a patient?

A: Yes.”

Imagine your client is a doctor. He/she treats a patient suffering from an ailment for which multiple treatment options are available. At least when I was in law school, we learned that a doctor is held to the standard of care that a similarly qualified practitioner would have performed under the same or similar circumstances. Yet, it is difficult to take issue with the “umbrella rule” that “A doctor is not allowed to needlessly endanger patients.” No one should be allowed to “needlessly endanger” anyone, right?

The rub here is the word “needlessly.” Sure, if there is a 100% fail-safe, side-effect-and-risk-free treatment option, then the choice for the doctor should be simple. In the real world, however, nothing is “risk-free.” Every treatment has risks and benefits which must be weighed and evaluated. And the jury must understand this. Practicing medicine is not a game of darts. The problem with the above set of questions, however, is that they (purposely) leave no room for the crucial weighing of risks and benefits. The Reptile strategy works best when jurors sense at a primitive level that the defendant doctor is out there, on the loose, preying upon unsuspecting patients, and the only way to stop him is by returning a monster jury verdict.†

The challenge for your witness, then, will be to ensure that she does not get boxed in by questions that leave out the weighing of risks and benefits. Remember I generally take an “activist” role in defending depositions, which means I will do everything within my (albeit limited) power to prevent my witness from being bullied into answering an unfair question. Thus, to a question like, “Physicians are not allowed to needlessly endanger patients?” I would object that this question is vague, ambiguous, unintelligible, overly broad and presents a hopelessly incomplete hypothetical. I would challenge the examiner to be more specific about what he/she means by “needlessly” and “endanger.” I would hope that, even if the examiner ignores my invitation to re-frame the question (as I expect she will), the judge will later agree that, in the real world of ailments and treatment options–and assuming the doctor did not perform surgery drunk–the phrase “needlessly endanger” is functionally meaningless.

Let’s assume, however, that the examiner ignores my objections and the court overrules them. The witness needs to be prepared to deal with this kind of question. And I believe she can learn, with practice, not to get boxed-in by questions that are frankly absurd. First, as I noted in my objection, the question is vague, ambiguous and unintelligible. The deponent should refuse to answer any question until she feels the meaning is crystal clear. I submit that “needlessly endanger” is far from crystal clear. If the examiner steadfastly refuses to break down or define what she means by “needlessly,” then the deponent should re-frame the question in her answer in a way that makes it reasonable. I’m no doctor–I don’t even play one on TV–but I believe the following answer beats “correct” any day:

“Q: Physicians are not allowed to needlessly endanger patients?

A: Correct. If you mean in prescribing treatment or medication, must a doctor consider and balance the risks and benefits of all treatment options available and known to him, I would agree with that. Otherwise, I don’t understand your question.”

Your witness must refuse to be drawn into empty over-generalizations. She needs to be prepared to endlessly reframe unfair questions, lest she will commit herself to enormous, sweeping “rules” or standards which have no real relevance or application to the concrete facts of the case. This actually holds true in any kind of deposition. The only difference with Reptile is that the questions will be cunningly tailored to prey upon jurors’ unconscious fears that doctors like your client are out there “needlessly endangering” patients like the juror and his/her family, and must be stopped. If your client did not “needlessly endanger” the plaintiff, but simply prescribed one among many accepted treatments, then the jury must–absolutely must–understand the balancing of risks and benefits that physicians undertake every time they prescribe a treatment. They can still conclude the doctor breached the applicable standard of care, but they should only do so based on an informed application of the appropriate standard to the specific facts.

†Let me say here that, while my practice does not include suing doctors for alleged malpractice, I do not have a built-in bias against plaintiffs or their lawyers.


A Potted Plant? Eh, Not So Much.

ghg6rtrTwo blawg posts last week caught my eye. Both discussed preparing and defending witnesses at deposition. At the Lawyerist, Chris Bradley talked about his experiences defending a client in his first judgment-debtor examination. His title for the piece, which I mistakenly took to be ironic, was: How To Defend A Deposition: Just Show up. The other post, by Philly Law Blog blogger Jordan Rushie, took the assignment more seriously, and provided better guidance, likely because he has more experience. In his post, Rushie credited Max Kennerly with the notion that “[i]f you prepare your witness properly [for deposition], you should be able to just be a potted plant.”

Let me say first that I’m not sure whether Max Kennerly ever made that statement. It sounds pretty good, provided you don’t, as Jordan Rushie fortunately did not, take it completely at face value. What concerns me is that young lawyers reading Bradley’s post at the Lawyerist and contemplating Kennerly’s remark, might mistakenly conclude that adequately preparing your client or witness for deposition is enough. Or nearly enough.

It’s not enough. Or nearly enough.

I agree that preparing your client or witness is surely the single most important part of your job in defending the deposition. Clients or witnesses who have never been though litigation are quite literally astonished when I suggest that we spend a half or full day preparing for their deposition. And that’s often not enough. I once spent three full days preparing a sexual harassment defendant for his deposition–and I was still unsatisfied with the result. So yes, Max Kennerly is right that witness preparation is the first priority.

But even if you spent a full week preparing the witness (yes, we do spend weeks preparing certain key witnesses, particularly if they do not speak English or the subject matter is particularly complex), your job is not done. There is your responsibility to “preserve the record” meaning making objections when questions are not technically correct. Jordan Rushie got that right.

But, in my humble view, adequately preparing the witness and interposing appropriate objections is still not enough.

My goal at every stage of the proceedings in a lawsuit is control. I’m not so naive that I think I can actually control very much. There are about a thousand things in every lawsuit that are simply beyond my control, the top of the list being the judge. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to control every single nuance as best as I can. I’m a control freak. Control. Control. Control.

When I present a witness for his or her deposition, I am being forced to relinquish control over a very important aspect of the process. In civil litigation, at least in my experience, depositions and documents win or lose a case. There’s very little I can do about bad paper. If there’s a bad document out there and my opposition has properly asked for it, and it’s not privileged, then I’ve got to produce it and we’re stuck with the consequences.

Depositions are different. Unlike bad documents, depositions don’t just exist. A deposition is more of a process. Even when we’re done preparing and I object whenever necessary, my opponent still must ask the right question and get a damaging answer before the evidence comes into existence. That’s a big leap, and I want to make it as difficult as possible to cross that chasm. And I’m not talking here about inappropriate objections, improper instructions not to answer, or being a difficult jackass, or other ethically-challenged conduct. But I do want my opponent to know I’m listening closely, to every word, and I’m not going to make it any easier for him/her than I absolutely have to. Otherwise, what am I getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to do? A well-trained monkey can object when questions are “vague and ambiguous.”† I think our role is bigger than that.

I learned pretty early that you want to create a “tight” environment from the start. By this, I mean that, even if I generally have an extremely cordial relationship with my opponent (and I usually do), I don’t want him or her to think that this particular deposition is going to be easy or fun. I want him or her to feel that our time on the record is “borrowed time,” that he/she is taking up my client/witness’s extremely valuable time, that we’re inconvenienced, that his/her goal should be to finish up as quickly as possible. It’s been my experience that, in most instances, this results in a shorter deposition. Shorter deposition = less chance of damaging testimony from my client/witness = a good thing.

Another way I create a “tight” environment is by interposing a fairly stiff objection early in the deposition. By early I mean in the first 20-30 minutes. This signals to my opponent that I’m listening, and that I don’t intend to put up with any baloney. I do try to avoid speaking objections, because they’re unprofessional. On the other hand, if I need to say additional words to fully state the objection or my nonspeaking objections aren’t getting anywhere, then I’ll say what needs to be said. Again, while it may be my opponent’s deposition, I’m going to retain as much control as I can.

I also want to dictate when we take breaks. At least every hour. I don’t want my witness getting fatigued, hungry, exhausted or even comfortable. When he/she gets comfortable, that’s exactly when the filters in his/her brain start to shut off and the damaging evidence is created.

I’m also not above verbally bitch-slapping scolding any opposing counsel who gets too high-handed with my client. Again, I’m not getting paid several hundreds of dollars an hour to sit back and watch some unprofessional lawyer abuse my client. I’ve come to believe that civility really is best 99.9% of the time. But, if an opponent is abusing my client with his/her examination, I have two choices: I can terminate the deposition or I can push back a bit. If I give some push back, perhaps we can alter the course and finish the deposition without bothering the judge. If I terminate the deposition, motion practice is sure to follow and this is costly, and the judge might not see things my way.

We sometimes walk a fine line when defending depositions. I don’t want to be obstructionist, or an asshole. But when we’re on the record, my job is to do everything ethically within my power to prevent that record from containing evidence that is damaging to my client’s case and/or helpful to my opposition. I respectfully disagree with the notion that this obligation is satisfied by “just showing up” or even by just making objections.

†I mean no disrespect to monkeys, trained or otherwise.


Why It’s Critical To Get A Stipulation To Go “Off The Record” In Deposition


When Alec Baldwin retires we’ll look back over his career, appreciate his different “periods,” and argue over when he shined most brightly. I’ll be torn between the current Alec Baldwin, a mischevious clown with serious acting and comedy chops, and an earlier, completely different Baldwin, handsome, hardened, narcissistic–kind of an asshole, really–that we see in Glengarry Glen Ross, The Juror, and Malice, from which this clip is pulled. I personally find his monologue in the opening minutes of Glengarry Glen Ross to be the most compelling (“Coffee is for closers!”), though he’s damn funny on 30 Rock.

This excerpt, though, is useful because it illustrates two points when defending a witness at deposition. First, if you can’t control your client sufficiently to prevent him or her from saying “I am God” at the wrong time, then look into another line of work. More technically, though, the clip illustrates the importance of securing a stipulation among all counsel to go “off the record,” meaning that the stenographer will no longer record testimony or colloquy. In the movie, one of the lawyers tells the reporter to stop reporting, and that seems sufficient. And I’ve found it usually is sufficient for one of the attorneys to say “off the record” or something similar. But, technically, an actual stipulation is required. See, Schwarzer, Tashima & Wagstaffe, Cal. Prac. Guid: Fed. Civ. Pro. Before Trial (The Rutter Group 2013), §11:1567, p.11-208. If you think you’re off the record, make sure the reporter’s hands aren’t moving, or your client’s declaration of divinity, or other gaffe, could become a bone of contention in the case.


A Tough Time, Those First Couple of Years

wwsseI was really impressed by a recent post at Philly Law Blog, in which Jordan Rushie discusses a humbling experience he had early in his law practice. What was so great about the post (and I highly recommend it, as well as the blog generally) was Rushie’s brave willingness to expose the kind of judgmentally-impoverished immaturity most of us have when we first start out. I bet many of us who have graduated into our second, third or fourth decade of practice could, if we were brave enough and our memory was up to it, recall an instance where we used similarly poor judgment.

I can’t speak for doctors or other professionals, but I know the first couple of years practicing law can be a challenging time. I think it stems largely from the following: when we start out (1) we’ve invested 3 years and a pile of money to get a degree which suggests we know what we were doing; (2) our employers and/or clients hire and (hopefully) pay us because we’re supposed to know what we’re doing; (3) the professional and ethical obligations imposed on us are premised on the assumption that we know what we’re doing, BUT (4) we don’t really know what we’re doing. When we get into a situation we’re unprepared to handle, we want so badly not to admit or show that we don’t know what to do, we often punt. While it works sometimes, other times punting can get us into a predicament that’s embarrassing, or worse.

This is compounded by opposing counsel who, if they have any experience at all, will figure out pretty quick that we are brand new and don’t really know what we’re doing. Some will exploit this.

My first deposition was a classic example. I was a first year lawyer, working at an insurance defense firm. While not nearly as prestigious (or well-paying) as BigLaw firms, starting your career representing insured clients in a variety of cases has tremendous value as a training exercise. While you’re not litigating Apple vs. Samsung, you generally get the chance to take depositions, argue motions, handle arbitrations, mediations and settlement conferences–in short, lawyering–from your very first day.

I had sat through a couple of depositions taken by partners in the firm–because God knows you’re not taught deposition skills in law school–and then let loose to take my first deposition of a third-party witness in a fender-bender case. It was so hokey, I think we took the depo at the witness’s home. In any event, I got there first and waited on the doorstep for my opponent to arrive. She did, and seemed friendly enough at first. She had a harried appearance, in her mid-late 40s. I must have looked really green, because pretty early in the conversation she asked “Is this your first deposition?” What was I going to do? Lie? Get offended? Tell her it was none of her business?

The court reporter arrived and swore in the witness. I did fine through the admonitions. But once I started getting to the meat of the testimony my opponent quickly adopted this habit of interjecting, either when she thought my question wasn’t clear or good enough, or to “clear something up” after the witness responded. She never objected to my questions, just went through and “fixed” them as we went along. Of course she fixed them in a way that rendered useless any testimony that might have been useful to my client. I remember thinking at the time that this didn’t seem right, that it wasn’t how the depositions I’d watched had gone, but I didn’t have the balls (at the time) to shut her up.

In the end the transcript of the deposition was pretty useless for purposes of my client’s defense. But it wasn’t the end of the world. If the carrier paid $8,900 to settle the case instead of $8,500 because we didn’t have a great third-party witness deposition to use at trial, it didn’t seem to bother the partner who’d sent me on the depo. He just laughed when I talked to him about it. He said, “Next time, tell her it’s your dime and she’ll get her turn.”


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