Tag Archives: court

Sound Strategies For Litigating In A Crumbling Court System

86282430_b8b63c3d76_zThis originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

At the risk of ridiculous understatement, all is not well in the California state court system. Last week it was reported that, over the last five years, about $1.2 billion has been taken away from our state judiciary, leading to the closure of 164 courtrooms and roughly 2,000 layoffs. In Los Angeles courts, the situation is just going to get worse. Another round of cuts are slated for June, meaning 25 percent fewer courtrooms, and the 16,000 pending personal injury cases will be divided among just three judges.

For those of us who cannot just “pack it in,” but must continue to ply our trade in this challenging environment, the question becomes how to effectively cope with these developments. The most natural response would be to choose a different forum. But federal district court is only an option when it is an option. And, while binding arbitration gives clients the chance to have their disputes heard where, when and by whom they chose, I argue this is rarely a reasonable alternative for at least two reasons. First, arbitration costs an arm and a leg, and these costs are frequently borne at the outset by just one party — usually the defendant. Second, putting one’s fate in the hands of a single decision-maker, with no possibility for review, is a bold step not to be taken lightly.

So, assuming federal court and arbitration are not viable alternatives, what can litigators do? Here are some suggestions:

Take control. The days of state court judges with the time or inclination to micromanage a case are behind us. This creates both a burden and an opportunity. If it furthers your client’s interests to take the helm and control the course of the litigation (and it usually does) and you package your plan in a way that is easy for the judge to adopt, it is possible to gain a tactical advantage.

Consider the Case Management Conference, which is often the first chance to meet the judge. Increasingly, it may be your only time with the judge before trial. Make the most of it. I’m not suggesting judges will begin to show interest in those vanilla Case Management Statement forms. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come to the conference prepared to get something done. Have an agenda and be specific. Want staggered expert disclosure deadlines? Raise it at the conference. Already having problems getting the other side to agree to deposition dates? Ask the judge to schedule them, making the dates part of the minute order. Many judges will appreciate having at least one attorney in the case who is awake at the wheel and ready to advance the ball. You will both curry favor with your judge and advance your client’s interests.

Look for early exit opportunities. This isn’t new or revolutionary. But fewer available courtrooms means it will take longer for your client’s case to reach trial. There was a period when judges aimed to push cases through within a year. This just isn’t going to be viable going forward. If an early exit by summary judgment or settlement is a possibility, pursue it earlier and save your clients the inevitable costs of languishing. Perhaps formulate a reasonable estimate of how early a summary judgment motion could be heard and reserve the hearing date right away. If you don’t, you may learn (as I did) that the court can’t hear your motion until about a week before your trial date (if then), which pretty much defeats the purpose of seeking summary judgment.

Be proactive in simplifying the case. Historically, it was not uncommon for a plaintiff to pursue every theory and keep every party initially sued in the case until the bitter end. This is not an indictment, but an observation. While ancillary theories are ultimately abandoned and unnecessary parties inevitably dismissed, the truth is they probably didn’t belong in the case to begin with and should have been omitted or “cut loose” much sooner. Simplifying the case sooner is not only the right thing to do; it will help reduce the judicial logjam.

Learn to meet and confer. We know the rules of civil procedure require us to demonstrate a good faith effort to meet and confer with opponents before filing discovery motions. Regardless whether we took that obligation seriously in the past, there is no question we must be sincere in our efforts to informally resolve discovery disputes now, since we’re unlikely to get rapid, if any, relief through judicial intervention. Meeting and conferring means earnestly trying to solve a problem, not just posturing.

Manage client expectations. Clients may have wildly different expectations about how a case will progress toward trial. To the extent these expectations may be unreasonable, based on another venue or a different era, take steps to ensure they are in line with the current environment. It is our court system, and not your practice, that is in crisis. Make sure your clients understand this.

Keep abreast. One major complaint cited in a recent Law360 article was the situation of showing up for a firm trial date only to learn it has been continued for weeks or months. We all know how disruptive trial preparation can be, not only for businesses, but also for individual clients. Contacting the clerk as a trial date approaches can often (though not always) yield information that helps reduce the surprise and attendant costs when the trial has been continued.

Is a court action really necessary? Pre-suit settlement has always been an option, but not always one taken seriously by lawyers or their clients. The current judicial budget crisis should change that. Not only will it take longer to get a case to trial, but the costs of getting there — from rising routine filing fees to optional, party-funded court reporters — are rapidly increasing. Where parties might have historically elected to proceed straight to litigation solely to enhance bargaining power or demonstrate resolve, it makes much more sense in the current environment for every party to thoroughly explore settlement before filing a complaint or refusing to further negotiate.

It is not inconceivable that more state general fund money will be allocated to the judiciary to alleviate the courtroom closures and staff layoffs. Until then, however, it falls on practitioners to do what we can to protect our clients during this challenging time. Hopefully these suggestions will help.


Tips The District Court Clerk Won’t Tell You (But She Told Me)

0904112216231moleculemanpm1tpaWell, it wasn’t just one clerk, and she/they didn’t tell me, exactly. A friend with excellent connections at the USDC, Central District of California, Bankruptcy and Ninth Circuit courthouses polled clerks she knew about what tips they would give to lawyers practicing in those courts. Here are a handful of the tips she received:

From the District Court:

1. Avoid making frivolous or blanket evidentiary objections in motions for, or oppositions to, summary judgment. This is one instance where the “kitchen sink” approach will simply piss the clerk off, since she will have to research and decide upon the merit of every single objection, regardless how pointless. Give her a break!

2.  Be flexible at oral argument. If the judge issues a tentative, use that information to tailor your oral argument. Try to address issues the court may have missed or evidence in the record that may have been overlooked but support your position.

3.  Read and comply meticulously with local rules and the judge’s standing order. Standing orders will be either posted on the judge’s Procedures and Schedules webpage or will be issued and posted to the docket once the case is assigned.

4.  Stand whenever you speak to the judge. Speak at the lectern, unless the court givs you leave to do otherwise. (And, of course, we know never to traverse the well, don’t we?!?)

5.  Avoid overly broad protective orders. Make sure an issue is ripe for a protective order (i.e., your client knows for sure it will disclose confidential information). Provide specific information to the court describing the documents and an explanation of the harm that will result if not protected.

From the Ninth Circuit:

1.  Coordinate with opposing counsel in designating the record on appeal. Clerks find it annoying where there are lots of duplicate documents in the record. Save a tree!

2.  Answer the specific question posed by the justice at oral argument. Apparently, attorneys (like politicians) have an annoying habit of dodging or circumventing an uncomfortable question. Who knew?

3.  Don’t waste time reciting facts at oral argument. The justices spend a lot of time with the record and are typically very familiar with the facts. Get to the argument!

And from the Bankruptcy Court:

1.  Be sure to update form templates. Attorneys apparently use outdated forms and, sometimes, overturned law.

There. Now enjoy the holiday!


Have You Sat Before This Judge Before?

Remember to let the judge sit down before you do.


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.


Some Other Things The Judge Said

I last wrote about a recent presentation made to my office by a retired judge, “Practical Advice and Perspectives From the Bench.”  While I found it most compelling (disturbing) to learn that many (most?) jurists in Los Angeles Superior Court, have a policy of denying even meritorious motions for summary judgment, the judge also offered several items of valuable advice.  While much of this will be familiar to lawyers who regularly appear in court, it is all useful and some of us, myself included, benefit from the occasional reminder.  So, in no particular order, here are some of his more valuable insights and suggestions:

1.  Never, ever, ever preface any argument to any judge using “With all due respect . . .”  This conveys the opposite, essentially, “You, Judge, are a moron, incapable of understanding the most basic legal concept . . .”

2.  Do not give equal time and/or space to weaker arguments.  This dilutes the stronger arguments.  Always lead with your best argument.

3.  Avoid repetition.  In the law and motion context, do not repeat arguments from your client’s motion in your reply.  And don’t orally repeat the argument again during the hearing.

4.  Don’t argue when the tentative is in your favor or you’re otherwise winning.  Sit down and shut up.  Don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

5.  Always give pin-cites (i.e., to the specific page within an opinion).  While this is how I was trained and how I practice, I would not have guessed pin-cites were so important to judges (and research attorneys).  The judge said his practice was always to look up cases lacking pin-cites and 50% of the time the case did not stand for the cited proposition.

6.  Refrain from petty complaints about opposing counsel.  The judge hears this all day long and you’re not furthering your cause, even if you’re 100% correct.

7.  When you appear on a multi-party case, take the time to orient the judge as to who the parties are, how they fit together in the controversy.  We apparently have “no idea” how confusing and disorienting it is to the judge when five different sets of lawyers appear on a case.

Again, many of these are either common sense or things most of us already know.  But, coming as they did from a retired judge, I thought it would be useful to share them.


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