Category Archives: Opinion/Editorial

A System Without A Goal Is Not A Good System

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” . . . and a donut without a hole, is a Danish.”
-Caddyshack

In a media dialogue between two minds I greatly admire, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and Associate’s Mind blogger and newly-published book author Keith Lee, the notion of setting goals recently took a severe beating.

Adams kicked off the goal-bashing in an entertaining Wall Street Journal piece, “What’s the best way to climb to the top? Be a failure.” Waxing autobiographically about the twists and turns that ultimately led to his huge success as a cartoonist, Adams suggests that goals, like diets, are basically a recipe for failure or disappointment, or both. He says:

“To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

So, since “goals are for losers,” Adams suggests we settle into a comfortable couch and spark some high-resin Bob Hope, right? Sadly, no. Instead, he suggests the recipe for success is found in developing “systems.” Unlike goals, systems are not only durable but evolutionary. He writes:

“Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.”

For his part, in a post entitled “Goals Are For Losers,” Lee embraces Adams’ mantra hook, line and sinker. Because Lee tends to focus on our development as lawyers, he suggests that systems are the path to success as a lawyer. He says:

“This focus on systems – and systematic improvement – can apply to almost every aspect of being a lawyer. Want to improve your writing? Develop a system in which you consistently write and receive feedback. Want to improve oral argument skills? Get together with other lawyers and set up an informal meeting/group devoted to affording lawyer the opportunity to engage in oral arguments and receive feedback. Think mock trial team from law school. Hell get your firm or the local bar to sponsor/support it. You can’t just skate by and hope to succeed as a lawyer. You have to work at it.”

I’m here to say that I haven’t heard so much empty linguistic sophistry about “systems” from intelligent minds since I finished that awful Hegel seminar my last quarter at UC San Diego. Both Adams and Lee are spot on that systems are indeed the path to success. And Adams is absolutely right that all of us are going to encounter failure along that road. After all, failure and adversity are what teach us resilience and build our character.

Where both go wrong, however, is in the suggestion that we abandon goals. Whaaaa?

What is a system without a goal? It’s just an exercise. We wouldn’t “consistently write and receive feedback,” as Lee suggests, for the sake of writing and receiving feedback. We use this system to help reach the GOAL of becoming a better writer. If you were going to take time out of your otherwise busy life to “set up an informal meeting/group devoted to affording . . . the opportunity to engage in oral arguments and receive feedback,” you would do so in order to reach the GOAL of becoming a better oral advocate. (Brief aside: don’t bother “setting up” any such thing, just join Toastmasters.)

There are perpetual students who obtain multiple degrees and never really leave school. But they have a system–just no goal. Goals are the key to success, as the authors’ own success aptly–but perhaps unwillingly–illustrate. Keith Lee would never have become a lawyer without setting the GOALS of graduating from college, getting into law school, then completing law school. He wouldn’t have built a wildly successful and influential blawg without the GOAL of building a quality law blog. And, he would not have a new book worth reading if he had not set the GOAL of finishing a book worth reading.

The key here is not to abandon goal-setting. Rather, once you set a goal, develop a system to reach that goal. And be flexible about adjusting that goal if it begins to seem unrealistic or you suffer a major set back, which is reasonably likely.

On the other side of the coin, when you achieve a goal, don’t spiral into depression, feeling “empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you.” Set a new goal! Reach higher and farther.

And read Dilbert. Often.


Legal Education: Less Is Not Necessarily More

9897_1The 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.


A Different Take On The Issue of Perjury

vbgfA strong editorial in the Wall Street Journal today by SNR Denton lawyer Matthew Lifflander discusses the economic impacts of lying, with a particular emphasis on perjury in court. I’m sure that, like any ethical issue, we all have different views on the importance of telling the truth and what would constitute a just and deterrent punishment for perjury.

I vividly recall being on vacation in Rome with a politically conservative close friend when the Republicans were all in a lather over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I found it amusing that he was so indignant that our President would be caught blatantly red-handed lying about a blow job. On the other hand, what can we tell our children about the oath of perjury if our leader, our President, ignores it  with impunity?

As the title of his piece suggests, Mr. Lifflander comes at the issue of perjury from an economic, cost-benefit (what benefit? and to whom?) analysis. It’s no surprise to any litigator that the practice of committing perjury is alive and well in our system, whether the liars are alleged criminals, greedy plaintiffs or callous corporations and their executives.

What I like about the piece, however, is not the shift from a purely ethical to a hard-line economic analysis of lying. Mr. Lifflander does offer some compelling statistics about the cost of dishonesty. For example, he cites that, “[i]n 2011 NY City  paid $550 million in personal-injury and property-damage tort settlements and judgments . . . City lawyers have previously said that up to 10% of the claims . . . involve fraud or misrepresentation.” But, while compelling, these numbers don’t move me. I suspect this is because I’m still naive enough to believe one adheres to a policy of truth both (1) because any deviance from this policy threatens a reputation for honesty that I consider sacrosanct (I prefer not to do business with dishonest people), and (2) because it’s just the right thing to do.

Rather, what I like is that Mr. Lifflander offers suggestions on how to curb this rampant abuse. He endorses (1) creating a fund to pay for prosecution of perjurers (to be funded by small taxes on large personal injury judgments), (2) establishing a statutory civil tort to redress those who can prove they were victimized by perjury; and (3) a change to the law to authorize civil trial judges to punish perjurers through fines, sanctions or reductions in judgment.

I would throw out the first two suggestions. I abhor new “taxes” of any kind, and I’m not clear why successful personal injury litigants should be taxed to pay for prosecution of perjurers. If a tax is needed to raise the funds, it should be levied on everyone–not just successful litigants. Establishment of another tort is not the answer, either. Must new lawsuits be spawned off of the wrongs perpetrated during other lawsuits? Do we really need litigation-about-litigation, meta-litigation?

I do, however, endorse Mr. Lifflander’s third proposal: to make it easier for a trial judge to punish instances in which perjury has obviously occurred. There is nothing more frustrating that showing a judge clear and convincing evidence that a litigant has blatantly lied to the court, only to have it ignored. I remember my frustration during one evidentiary hearing in which I held up a real estate document in which it was obvious that the defendant had forged my client’s initials on an arbitration provision (obvious because, next to it, I had a version of the document obtained by subpoena that did not contain her initials), and the judge glossed over the issue. Are you kidding me? I thought. What kind of judge are(n’t) you?

The problem I see, though, is not that judges lack the authority to punish liars, but that many (most?) judges can’t be bothered to do it. The solution is probably not more legislation, but a change in the way judges–those in whom we place our trust to enforce the laws against perjury–view the crime. I doubt much will change on this front, however, until the public takes the crime of perjury and its consequences, ethical or economic, more seriously.


Recent Mixed-Motive Case Is A Mixed Bag For California Employers

1184335059_0505In February, the California Supreme Court issued an important decision applying the mixed-motive defense to employment discrimination cases brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). First, a brief bit of background: according to the mixed-motive defense, available in federal employment discrimination claims brought under Title VII, if an employer had both discriminatory and nondiscriminatory reasons for firing an employee, the employer should not be liable if the nondiscriminatory reason alone was sufficient to warrant termination of the employee.

In Harris v. City of Santa Monica, a bus driver was terminated for performance-related reasons shortly after she notified her supervisor that she was pregnant. She sued the City alleging the termination was an instance of pregnancy discrimination. At trial, the City asked the court to instruct the jury that, if the City proves it would have reached the same decision to terminate the driver even without a discriminatory motive, then it could not be held liable. The court refused this instruction and instead instructed the jury that if the bus driver proved her pregnancy was “a motivating factor/reason for the discharge” then the City was liable. The jury found the plaintiff’s pregnancy was a motivating factor and awarded her $177,905 in damages and $401,187 in attorney’s fees.

The City appealed and the Court of Appeal determined that the proposed mixed-motive instruction should have been given. It reversed and remanded. Harris sought, and the California Supreme Court granted, review of the Court of Appeal decision.

The Supreme Court held that the instruction should have required the plaintiff to establish, not just that discrimination was a motivating factor or reason, but that it was “a substantial motivating factor/reason” for the termination.* If the plaintiff makes this showing, the employer then has the opportunity to limit its exposure by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision for nondiscriminatory reasons, such as job performance. If the jury finds in favor of the employer on this issue, the plaintiff may not recover compensatory damages, back pay or reinstatement, though she may still seek and recover injunctive and declaratory relief. Additionally, she may stll be entitled to recover her attorney’s fees in prosecuting the lawsuit under FEHA.

At first blush, Harris would seem to be a positive development for California employers–and it is. The problem is that employment discrimination suits tend to be attorney-fee driven, with the result that lawyers will file and aggressively pursue marginal liability cases with the hope of striking it big with an attorney fee award. Consider the trial result in Harris, in which the attorney fees sought were over twice the damages award. The practical impact is that the employer is punished (though an attorney fee award) even when it otherwise succeeds in its mixed-motive defense.

*Emphasis added.


Will Plaintiffs Choose Federal Over California’s Broken State Courts?

kjuhLaw360 reported Wednesday that budget cuts are crippling the California state court system. Not that this is really news. Between court closures, job cuts, “no-host” court reporters, furloughs, getting regular, reasonable and reliable access to justice has become very difficult in California state court. And, it’s only anticipated to get worse. The article suggests that, in June, the Los Angeles Superior Court will experience a reduction to 25% fewer courtrooms. Apparently “all of the 16,000 personal injury cases are going to be divided among three judges.”

Really? How can any judge manage a docket of over 5,000 cases?

“Experts,” the article says, believe that plaintiffs will increasingly resort (gasp!) to filing their cases in federal district court. I know this is possible with employment actions where there are both state and federal remedies. But will this become a more appealing alternative to filing in state court and waiting as the case winds through that crumbling court system? I’m not so sure.

I’ve encountered a lot of practitioners on the plaintiff side who will do almost anything to stay out of federal court. I’m not suggesting that this is because these lawyers can’t, by putting in the effort, get up to speed and comply with the stringent federal procedural requirements. It’s more circular. Lawyers who have historically shied away from a federal practice seem less comfortable with the Federal Rules of Evidence or Civil Procedure, which leads them to choose state court, which perpetuates their discomfort with the federal rules and procedures, and on and on, ad infinitum. Could the clogged California state system get so bad that these lawyers overcome this bias against federal court?

There are at least two other reasons I don’t expect plaintiffs to rush into the federal courthouse. First, unanimous agreement among the jurors is required for a verdict in federal court. (FRCP 48) In California state court, only 9 of 12, or three-quarters of the jury, must agree to reach a verdict for the plaintiff. (CCP §613) This means a lot of wiggle room in the state system and absolutely no wiggle room in the federal system.

As I’ve noted, there’s also the question of where jurors are drawn from. In the Los Angeles Superior Court, the jurors will come from Los Angeles county, and typically a smaller judicial district closer to the courthouse. Thus, a case in the Santa Monica courthouse will get jurors with different socioeconomic, ethnic and educational backgrounds from a case pending in the downtown LA courthouse. The federal district courts, however, draw from the entire Northern, Southern, Eastern or Central districts, each of which is a broader conglomeration of separate communities. On the defense side, we often believe this tends to dull the anti-corporate bias which might be prevalent in any one community.

Finally, I cannot attest to the accuracy of this premise–but it has been my experience with federal district court judges that they at least seem more conservative and less pro-plaintiff. At the very least, they pay closer attention to the procedural rules and have less tolerance for blatantly sloppy lawyering. While I can’t control much once a case or issue is in the hands of a judge or jury, I can ABSOLUTELY control whether the lawyering is sloppy. Not everyone is so eager to please.

So, while I’m confident the crisis in the California state court system will have repercussions and practice-changing consequences (such as reserving a date for summary judgment when you answer the complaint!), I’m not inclined to think there will be any kind of stampede to the federal courthouse. Just a hunch.


Closure: Coming Soon To A Courthouse Near You

wwsseedPerhaps this is unique to California, but I just received another announcement from our attorney service of a courthouse closure. In addition, the notice mentioned yet another court that, although not closing altogether, was being reduced by several newly darkened courtrooms.

As a lawyer who makes his living doing things court-related, I’m both saddened and alarmed to learn that entire courthouses are closing. It’s not that I’m sad or afraid because there are fewer lawsuits being filed (that appears to remain on the rise), but rather that there’s a rapidly shrinking number of venues available to resolve those disputes. It will take longer for cases to get to trial, resulting in fewer trials and less access to justice. It will also make it harder for newer generations of lawyers to get trial experience. (This is obviously a secondary concern, but it is a legitimate concern for many of us.) It’s . . . a . . . disappointing to live in such a perpetually mismanaged state. But I’ve been thinking about ways the judiciary and our profession can cope with this situation and I’ve come up with a couple of ideas.

First, I recently co-authored an article for the ACC Docket which talked about the notion of a “compressed” trial, in which the judge forced the parties to present a case that would normally consume 3 weeks in just 4 days. Much of the article discussed tips and suggestions how to better prepare for this kind of compressed trial format, but I also argued that lawyers and their clients should not just accept such a drastically condensed trial, but actually embrace the concept. After all, if a trial that would normally consume 3 weeks could be reasonably condensed down to 4 days,* that would free up 2 weeks in which two more highly compressed trials could be completed. Imagine completing 3 trials in the time if used to take to do just one.

There was a program introduced in some parts of California for the 1 day jury trial. I don’t know if that was successful or is still being practiced. But that’s not what I’m advocating. If the lawyers can shape a case to be tried in a day or less they will almost always do so on their own. But it takes a pretty heavy-handed judge to force the lawyers and parties to condense a 3 week presentation to something like 4 days. Perhaps more judges should do this. Just a thought.

Another idea involves ADR. If budget cuts are effectively privatizing access to justice in some places, it ought to at least be done right. A major concern centers around the cost of ADR, and I’m not talking about the hourly fees of neutrals. In my experience, the rates of most neutrals are commensurate, or even slightly less, than those of the attorneys appearing before them. But there are costs associated with working with an “institutional” ADR provider that tend to give our clients pause, and with good reason. If law firms are going to be squeezed and forced to do more for less, shouldn’t ADR providers do the same? What about more “solo” ADR providers?

My personal beef with ADR, at least arbitrations, is the inconsistent application of the rules of evidence. Appellate courts keep judges honest, but some arbitrators can and do dispense with evidence rules rather freely, which makes the hearing something of a chaotic free-for-all.

There’s no real silver lining to the issue of darkened courtrooms and closed courthouses. Wherever it occurs, there is reduced access to justice. Perhaps, though, we can collectively brainstorm and come up with constructive ways to manage the problem.

*Whether it was in fact “reasonable” for the judge to compress the trial this aggressively was a subject of some debate, particularly by counsel for the losing side which, fortunately, was not me.


Is Law School “Worth” The Money? A Reply To Dean Mitchell

bbhgggIn a November 28th editorial in the NY Times, Case Western Reserve University Law School Dean Lawrence E. Mitchell defends the investment in a law school education. He writes:

“I’m a law dean, and I’m proud. And I think it’s time to stop the nonsense. After two years of almost relentless attacks on law schools, a bit of perspective would be nice.”

The gist of Dean Mitchell’s well-crafted apology is that the strongest criticisms are wrongly premised on a prospective lawyer’s first job, i.e., whether there will be an entry-level law job available and how much a first year lawyer will earn, compared with the heavy blanket of debt lawyers will carry into their chosen careers. He argues:

“[T]he focus on first jobs is misplaced. We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years. . . . Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.the focus on first jobs is misplaced. We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years. The world is guaranteed to change in unpredictable ways, but that reality doesn’t keep us from planning our lives. Moreover, the career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving. Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.”

Mitchell makes good points, but I don’t think he goes far enough–in either direction. On the one hand, while he acknowledges that the average graduate of a private law school comes away with $125,000 in debt, I don’t get the sense that Mitchell has any clue what a mountain of debt that heavy feels like. As one who finished school and passed the bar in 1993 owing roughly $80,000, I can tell you it sucked. While I found employment, and got the opportunity to don a suit and tie, hone my skills and learn from a really terrific mentor, the loan payments dug heavily into my $57,600 first year lawyer salary. The drag of “servicing” this debt for the first 10-15 years (or more) should not be lightly brushed aside as a mere inconvenience.

On the other hand, for some (few!), our profession is truly a calling. If someone asked me to honestly answer whether law school is worth the investment of time and A LOT of money, I would answer in the way many successful artists, writers, musicians answer when asked if sacrificing everything to draw, paint, write, cook, etc. is “worth” it: if you honestly can’t imagine living out your life without the experience of practicing law–not just “applying the skills to a career in government or business”–but you literally can’t imagine doing anything else–then law school is absolutely worth it. If you come from means and an extra $50k is waiting to be put to good use, then the law school investment is absolutely worth it.

But if you are like many of us, from middle-class families, who are taking the last few classes needed for your Poli Sci or English (in my case, Philosophy) degree, and you think a career in law “is as good as anything else,” then perhaps you should save your time, (borrowed) money and psyche. Maybe do something else instead.

Dean Mitchell worries that all the “hysteria” (his term) has effectively turned off talented prospective students from law schools that really should go ahead and apply, notwithstanding the cost and dismal job market. He trots out the following example:

“Last spring we accepted an excellent student with a generous financial-aid package that left her with the need to borrow only $5,000 a year. She told us that she thought it would be “irresponsible” to borrow the money. She didn’t attend any law school. I think that was extremely shortsighted, but this prevailing attitude discourages bright students from attending law school.”

Aw, what a shame! Here’s the truth: if that “excellent student” really felt the need to be a lawyer deep enough in her bones, she would have borrowed the $5,000 a year, or panhandled or done something else and found the money. Like a musician who wants to make music–who needs to make music like she needs to breathe–bad enough to starve as a street busker* for a few years, someone who can’t imagine not practicing law will find a way–some way–to make it work.

For everyone else, me included, there’s no harm in doing what Dean Mitchell’s “excellent student” actually did (turns out she was pretty smart): rationally weigh the costs and benefits of borrowing $15,000, or $125,000 and spending 3 years of your life pursuing a dream that might not be the rosy path to success it once was.

I’m glad I struggled through law school and struggled through paying off my law school loans. I’m doing pretty okay now, and I generally like what I do (some parts MUCH MORE than others). But, if you can rationally weigh the alternatives, and can reasonably picture spending the next 30-40 years doing something other than practicing law, then don’t be too quick to rush in. Go ahead, take some time, weigh the alternatives.

*Joe Strummer, for example, who was a street busker for years before he found fame and fortune.


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