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.