Tag Archives: judge

3 Ways To Make Your Brief Read Better On An iPad

24toys-articleLargeThanks to some of my Michigan colleagues, I learned today for the first time that a growing number of appellate court justices are reading briefs on an iPad. I guess it’s pretty clear that I’m out of touch. (I feel like Dr. Evil, on Austin Powers, when he demands the government pay him only $1 million.)

Fortunately for me, and for you, Daniel Sockwell, writing in the Columbia Business Law Review, is not so out of touch. In a piece entitled “Writing a Brief for the iPad Judge,” he offers some really useful advice for writing an appellate brief if you know your judge may end up reading it on an iPad. How would you know? By asking the clerk, of course.

Here are 3 of Sockwell’s tips:

1. Use Fewer FootnotesSockwell writes that “[o]ne of the advantages of reading on an iPad is that judges can adjust the screen view, zooming in and focusing on the current passage.” Unfortunately, this advantage is “lost if footnotes require the reader (judge) to constantly scroll to the bottom of the page for citations or substantive material.” Sockwell feels this compounds the risk that the judge or her clerk might not bother to read the footnotes at all.

2. Choose Your Font With Care. Sockwell notes that, while “the effective resolution of an iPad [is] closer to print,” there is a risk that “some of the best print fonts can become jagged or difficult to read at screen resolutions.” What should you do? Unfortunately, Sockwell leaves us wondering, though he does point us in the direction of an entire book on the subject of fonts (the perfect gift for that typography nut in your life). I started to do some of my own online research to find out what kind of fonts read best on iPads, but I came up short. I’m going to go with the plan to use a simple font rather than anything really creative. If someone has some clearer suggestion, maybe they could leave a comment.

3. Go With “Scientific,” Rather than Traditional Legal Hierarchical Headings. We typically use traditional hierarchical headings in briefs that are printed (e.g., Part I, Section A, Subsection 1, etc.). This method apparently doesn’t work well for documents read on an iPad, because it’s easy to lose track of which “Section A” one’s looking at. Instead, Sockwell urges brief writers to adopt the scientific hierarchical headings (e.g., Part 1, Section 1.1, Subsection 1.1.1, etc.).

Sockwell includes one more point: be sure to adhere to local rules, even if it means making a stylistic sacrifice. While double spacing of lines might look horrible on an iPad, it may be required by the local rules, at least until rules are universally updated to reflect the reality that more and more judges are reading briefs on iPads.


Be A Superlative Local Counsel

asdfreI 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.


One Way To Object Without Garnering Juror Resentment

yhuOne of our most important jobs during trial is to object, when necessary, to prevent the improper admission of evidence. But doing this job, even properly, is not without its risks. Chief among these is the risk of alienating jurors or garnering resentment because it is obvious–assuming the objection is sustained–that you have succeeded in hiding some quantum of information from the jury. After all, they’ll wonder, if your client’s case is so obviously a winner–as you said in your opening statement–why this need to hide facts from us?

As always, the wise Professor McElhaney has something to offer on this topic. In his Trial Notebook (3rd. Ed.), he suggests we learn and practice how to make objections understandable to the jury. He even suggests they can be made appealing. He writes:

“It is true that objections are supposed to be made to the bench, not to the jury or opposing counsel. In fact, addressing either your adversary or the jury is an invitation for a reprimand from the judge. On the other hand, there is no rule against making objections so that the jurors understand the basis for your objection and perhaps even sympathize with your position, rather than concluding you are pulling some lawyer’s trick to keep them from hearing the whole truth.

Essentially the idea is to state a legally sufficient objection–one that is specific and accurate–which a layman can understand and appreciate, and do it in five to ten seconds. For example, ‘Objection, leading,’ may win a ‘sustained’ from the judge, but will not really help the jury understand what you have done. ‘Objection, Your Honor, leading. Counsel is putting words in his witness’s mouth,’ lets the jury see that your adversary has been doing the testifying.

The time limitation is very important, since if you take too long, you are inviting attack for making a speech. With some work, even the most difficult concepts can be understandably compressed in a short time. Instead of saying, ‘Objection, hearsay,’ you might say, ‘Objection, Your Honor, the jury can’t tell whether some casual bystander this witness overheard was telling the truth. This is hearsay.'” (p.327)

McElhaney goes on to point out that, while it may seem like fine trial lawyers who make well-phrased objections do so extemporaneously, the truth is that such language is generally developed and practiced in advance.


Want To Lose Your Trial? Be Late And Keep A Jury Waiting

gytrrThe ABA Journal reported on Friday that a Pennsylvania judge held a lawyer in contempt and increased the bond for his client when they were late for a jury trial. “We were all here at 9 a.m. for a jury trial and the defense table was empty,” said the judge, who had dismissed the prospects not long before the two arrived. “We wasted a jury panel.” The lawyer later claimed that personal problems kept him up late and the hotel failed to give him a wake-up call.

Readers can receive this in many ways. Some will say, good for the judge, he did the right thing. Others will think it’s over the top and the judge was out of line. After all, everyone has been late at one time or another. Is contempt and a $1,000 fine (which the judge ordered later) really appropriate?

I don’t know. I suspect if I was the judge the outcome would have depended on whether I was particularly irritable that morning. Not very even-handed, I know. But whether a lawyer is held in contempt for being late, or simply slapped on the wrist, the lesson we should learn from this particular Pennsylvania judge is the same: don’t be late for a jury trial. Ever. Period.

I’ll confess I’m sometimes challenged when it comes to getting somewhere on time. I make this confession so you won’t mistake me for someone who is self-righteous about his meticulous habits. But there are two events for which I take great pains to be on time. One is to catch an airplane and the other is for trial.

It’s been my experience that most judges presiding over a jury trial tend to put the interests and needs of those serving jury duty at or above his/her own. If you are before one of these judges, the quickest way to earn the judge’s scorn is to keep an impaneled jury waiting. (It doesn’t help that, when you keep the jury waiting, you’re also keeping His/Her Honor waiting as well.) In case it’s not obvious: the judge’s scorn often translates to the jury’s scorn, which you don’t want.

My mentor has always had a rule that the hotel where he stays and sets up his war room during trial must be the very closest possible hotel to the courthouse. It doesn’t matter if this is a den of filth, replete with vermin and cockroaches. He knows when he’s in trial he’s at war. There’s no time to be tied up in one of those unpredictable traffic jams. If you know you can walk to the courthouse in a reasonable amount of time, rain or shine, it’s one less thing to worry about. Worry = wasted mental energy, and mental energy is precious during trial.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Berks County, Pennsylvania Judge Stephen B. Lieberman. But leave my name out of it.


Useful Tips From A Recent Bench-Bar Conference

4c013d050381f202e20e6a7067004b8dBecause I pay attention to analytics, I know that my most popular posts are those in which I have passed on advice or comments from a judge or judge’s clerk. People apparently find and read my blog because they want to get some inside scoop from the bench, as opposed to my witty, original repartee. Best not quit my day job, I guess.

At any rate, a talented Michigan appellate specialist I know attended a recent appellate bench-bar conference and brought back some wise comments from the judges and court staff, “of which,” as Bob Marley sings, “I’ll share with you.”

1.  When Briefing the Facts.

When briefing the facts, don’t misrepresent the facts or get too argumentative. Eliminate most adjectives in the statement of facts section. Also be wary of including too many facts and dates. Dates that aren’t relevant to the issues to be decided by the appellate court are distracting and tiresome. Also bear in mind that the appellate court rarely needs to know the entire procedural history.

2. When Briefing the Law.

Briefing the law requires honesty. Do not mischaracterize the law generally or the holding or import of a particular case. Strive for economy; view the page limit as an outer limit, not a goal to reach. Another problem specific to appellate briefing is the tendency to raise too many issues. Judges complain that lawyers often fail to recognize and identify the appropriate standard of review. Judges should be treated as “generalists” who may need a primer on the law in the area and a tutorial on the industry involved. Bear in mind the “ABCs” of good brief writing: Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity. Do not attack opposing counsel in the brief.

3. When Arguing Before An Appellate Court.

The judges cited “reading from a prepared text” as among the most common errors in oral argument. Treat the argument as an opportunity for both the lawyers and the judge(s) to be educated. Do not fail to answer the questions the judge(s) actually asked. Be sensitive to “cues” from the bench as to what a judge believes the real or dispositive issue to be. Do not attack opposing counsel in oral argument. If you are lucky enough to be arguing before a state or the US Supreme Court, be prepared to answer the question, “What rule are you asking us to establish?”

There. Now go kick some appellate ass.


Could The Five Year Rule Become Relevant Again In California?

trfftAs I grow older, I become increasingly familiar with the feeling of “dating” myself by admitting to TV shows I watched, music I liked, or even sports I played (remember Dodgeball?).  I date myself as a California litigator when I reminisce about the “Five Year Rule.” The Rule wasn’t repealed. It’s still part of the California Code of Civil Procedure. Section 583.310 provides: “An action shall be brought to trial within five years after the action is commenced against the defendant.” Section 583.360(a) says: “An action shall be dismissed by the court on its own motion or on motion of the defendant, after notice to the parties, if the action is not brought to trial within the time prescribed in this article.” (All emphases added.)

The statute sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I remember being a new defense lawyer in the early 1990s opposing motions to exempt a case from the Five Year Rule for some reason or another. I was awed by the relative calm with which plaintiff lawyers argued these motions, on the very eve of expiration, as though they had nothing at all to worry about. I knew that I would be an absolute wreck if I thought there was even the smallest chance my client’s case would be dismissed. But, I never had a case get dismissed for failure to start trial in five years. It seemed like the statute had more bark than bite.

The Five Year rule never went anywhere. Instead, the California courts changed, rendering the Rule completely irrelevant. Around my third or fourth year, the state courts initiated the Delay Reduction Act, or “fast track” rules. When the fast track rules (majority of cases to be tried within one year) were first implemented, I remember judges were really difficult if you wanted to exempt a particular case from the fast track. God forbid a case might legitimately take 18 months or, gasp, 2 years to be ready for trial. Certain judges were so committed to the new rules that they would set a trial date within 12 months even if it fell on Christmas eve or interfered with someone’s wedding or honeymoon. I suppose it seemed particularly draconian because I hadn’t yet realized that, regardless when they’re set, most civil cases never actually start trial.

While it’s mostly dinosaurs like me who remember the Five Year Rule, it now seems that, with the massive changes to California’s courts occasioned by the budget crisis, the Rule could become relevant again. If we do see a resurgence of motions to dismiss under the Five Year Rule, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • The parties can stipulate, either in writing or orally in open court, to extend the time for trial to occur. (CCP §583.330)
  • The time is calculated to exclude time during which the court lacked jurisdiction, or prosecution of the trial was stayed or enjoined, or getting the case to trial was impossible, impracticable or futile. (CCP §583.340)
  • Courts have significant discretion in their application of the §583.340 exceptions. See, Bruns v. E-Commerce Exchange, Inc., 51 Cal.App.4th 717 (2011).

However, even armed with dicta from Bruns, lawyers representing plaintiffs must be able to show they’ve been diligent in moving the case along. Otherwise, mandatory dismissal is technically possible.


When Judges Play Games To Protect The Record Against Appeal

ghtrEver found yourself in that situation where you are not only losing an argument or motion, but it seems mysteriously like the judge is bent on preventing you from making a decent record of your position?

In Litigation, the wise Professor McElhaney identifies games judges commonly play with attorneys in the interest of preventing them from making a record which can be used to challenge the ruling on appeal. He writes, “If [the judge] can force lawyers to waive objections or forget to make offers of proof . . . it will improve [the judge's] batting average with the court of appeals.” (p.294) Here are a few such games:

1. Cutting off, under the guise of preventing speaking objections, any argument or objection.

2. Refusing to permit offers of proof at the time an objection is sustained; requiring counsel to wait until the next recess or next day of trial, when they’re likely to forget.

3. Insisting that exhibits be offered and admitted only at the end of the entire trial. This “forces lawyers to waive most of their evidentiary objections about exhibits. At the end of trial they are thinking about their final arguments, not about foundations or rulings.” (p.295)

4. Making “weasel” rulings on evidentiary objections: “I’ll let it in for what it’s worth.”

5. Making noncommittal rulings. “I’ve heard enough, let’s proceed.” Or, “All right, I understand your positions; let’s move along.” These aren’t rulings and, regardless what happens next (i.e., the objected-to question is answered and/or the jury hears the evidence), it will be all but impossible for an appellate court to identify an error, since the judge shirked her responsibility to make a ruling.

Recognizing your judge is playing one of these games will help you to maintain your resolve to make an effective record. Oh, and if you’re in a California state court, be sure to order and pay for that court reporter, otherwise you’re not going to be making a “record” at all.


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