One Lawyer’s Secret Weapon

yrtA lawyer I know, he has a Secret Weapon. When I get around to revealing it, you’re going to be surprised, because it’s so obvious. But it totally works.

First, a pop quiz:

Question One: What do you do when you’re trying to negotiate with an opposing lawyer over something small, but important–say an extension to respond to discovery–which, among professionals–people who wear white collars and silk ties to work, who attended years and years of expensive schooling, passed excruciatingly difficult examinations, swore an ethical oath–would seem to be an easy thing to agree upon–what do you do when this opposing lawyer unreasonably refuses, without any explanation, this simple, routine request?

Question Two: What do you do when you’re sitting across from that same lawyer in a cramped conference room, taking his client’s deposition and, over the course of several hours, he repeatedly insults and demeans you, challenges you to justify every third question, asks no less than five times “how much longer” you’re going to be, persistently interrupts you mid-question to interject the start of what will surely be a long, inappropriate speaking objection, and instructs his client not to answer at least seventeen times?

These questions are not directed to what you do the next day, or whenever you ultimately resort to serving objections, or moving the court to compel answers to the deposition questions and seeking sanctions, or asking the court to appoint a discovery referee.  I’m asking what do you do in the heat of the moment, while your heart rate is still elevated.

If you’re me–and believe me I’m not bragging here–you take everything personally, get pissed off, turn beet red and start talking with the snappy sarcasm of a desperate salesman in a Mamet play. You see: I haven’t mastered the Secret Weapon. I can talk a good game. I’ve written over and over about the wisdom of maintaining a professional, cooperative demeanor in litigation. But when the rubber meets the road I struggle to avoid stooping to an unprofessional opponent’s level, or (gasp) worse. No, I haven’t yet mastered the Secret Weapon.

But you can. The good news is that YOU CAN master the Secret Weapon. When the lawyer I’m thinking of is faced with the above, or worse, he pulls out his Secret Weapon and does this: he simply acts nice. He meets rudeness, lack of professionalism–you name it–with an oversized bucketful of fluffy pink kindness.

It’s impressive to see. Picture Roger Federer being pelted with a barrage of ugly, aggressive cross-court winners and absorbing and converting the energy, speed and spin of each angry ball, only to gracefully return it with nothing more than an easy, gentle lob. In fact, like CIA assassin Jason Bourne, whose manner of calm resolve seems actually to increase in a disturbing direct proportion to any rising threat of imminent capture or death, this lawyer’s attitude of kind, gracious, solicitude seems to actually grow in direct proportion to the lack of professionalism of an opponent.

He invariably takes the high road. He literally kills them with kindness. Is it always easy for him? I doubt it. Is he sincere in his “attitude of kind, gracious, solicitude”? Who cares. He’s getting the job done. In most encounters, his weapon immediately deflates a situation that in my fat, clumsy hands would become a runaway train wreck. It works. It really does. Try it next time you’re dealing with a total asshole less than professional member of our profession, you’ll see.


California Employers: Some Important New Laws Effective Jan. 1, 2014

27304u_0California employers should be aware of significant new state laws which take effect on January 1, 2014. These include:

Protected Categories Expanded to Include Military and Veteran Status. – Assembly Bill 556 adds “military and veteran status” to the list of categories protected from employment discrimination.

Prohibition of “Unfair Immigration-Related Practices” – Assembly Bill 263 prohibits employers from engaging in “unfair immigration-related practices,” which could include contacting or threatening to contact immigration authorities, because an employee asserts protected rights under the California Labor Code. Other immigrant protection legislation effective Jan. 1, 2014 includes SB 666 (business license revocation for threatening to report immigration status), and AB 524 (authorizes criminal extortion for threatening to report immigration status).

Domestic Worker Bill of Rights – Assembly Bill 241 creates a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. This provides specific overtime pay for a “domestic work employee who is a personal attendant.” The bill has many specific definitions and exclusions.

Heat Illness Recovery Periods – Senate Bill 435 expands meal and rest break prohibitions to include “recovery” periods necessary to prevent heat illness. Penalty mirrors premium for failing to provide meal or rest breaks (i.e., one additional hour of pay for each workday that meal, rest, heat illness recovery period not provided). Unlike the meal and rest period rules which provide a clear guidance on timing, however, the need for a heat illness recovery period is subjective and determined by the employee. Employers with outdoor workers need to ensure their Heat Illness Prevention programs comply with Cal-OSHA regulations.

Leaves Required for Victims of Certain Crimes – Two important new laws. Senate Bill 288 provides protections for victims of certain crimes (including solicitation for murder and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated) who take time off from work to appear in court proceedings. SB 400 extends protections for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault or victims of stalking, including time off to appear at legal proceedings and to seek medical/psychological treatment. This law adds a reasonable accommodation requirement—which can include implementation of safety measures—for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Expanded Scope of Whistleblower Protections – California Labor Code Section 1102.5 already provides protections for employees who report violations of federal or state statutes. Senate Bill 496 expands this protection to include suspected violations of a local rule or regulation, and will include reporting violations to “a person with authority over the employee or another employee who has authority to investigate, discover or correct the violation.”


If A Literary God Wrote An Appellate Brief . . .

wallaceWhat would his sentences be like? Would they read like his prose, if the prose that he wrote read like this?

“It was this look on the face that (slowly) turned left to look at her from the ambulance–a face that in the very most enuretic and disturbing way both was and was not the face of the husband she loved — that galvanized Jeni Roberts awake and prompted her to gather every bit of her nerve together and make the frantic humiliating call to the man she had once thought very seriously of marrying, an associate sales manager and probationary Rotarian whose own facial asymmetry — he had suffered a serious childhood accident that subsequently caused the left half of his face to develop differently from the right side of his face; his left nostril was unusually large, and gaped, and his left eye, which appeared to be almost all iris, was surrounded by concentric rings and bags of slack flesh that constantly twitched and throbbed as irreversibly damaged nerves randomly fired — was what, Jeni decided after their relationship foundered, had helped fuel her uncontrollable suspicion that he had a secret, impenetrable part to his character that fantasized about lovemaking with other women even while his healthy, perfectly symmetrical, and seemingly uninjurable thingie was inside her.” (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, “Adult World (I),” p.153.)

Scary? Sure, if you’re the appellate justice’s long-suffering clerk. You might wonder, then, why legal writing guru Bryan Garner took the time to interview said Literary God–David Foster Wallace–about persuasive legal writing, before the LG’s untimely death by suicide in 2008.

Well, wonder no longer. As highlighted in a recent article by Garner himself in the ABA Journal, it turns out that, although his fiction is often . . . er . . . challenging, DFW has something to say about persuasive writing, not only from the perspective of an innovative novelist, but also as both an essayist and an academic. Among the things he said:

“So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Like: “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.”

I’m looking forward to the book that contains the fruits of this interview, Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing. Royalties from the book will apparently support the David Foster Wallace literary archive housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


Thank You, ABA Journal!

2013_Blawg100_HorizBadgeFavThank you, ABA Journal for generously including At Counsel Table in the 2013 Blawg 100!

I was pleased to see the familiar names of some great blogs on the list this year, including Max Kennerly’s Litigation and Trial, Popehat, FMLA Insights, Careerist, Philly Law Blog and Jonathan Turley.

But I was disappointed to see a slew of really great law blogs were left off the list. These include Associate’s Mind, What About Clients, My Shingle and the reliably irascible Simple Justice. I can only think these blogs have become simply too rich and famous for inclusion in the Blawg 100. But I highly recommend each of these sites; visit them often.

I also encourage you to register and vote HERE for your favorite blogs, which could include At Counsel Table.

Thanks, again, ABA Journal.


One Sure Way To Boost Audience Retention

31585505_yawn2_xlargeWe could debate for hours whether compelling public speakers are born with that gift or they achieve it through diligent practice. I suspect that, like many skills, it’s probably a bit of both. Few would disagree that everyone benefits from practice. Practice with honest feedback can be particularly helpful. This is why I’m a big fan of Toastmasters.

I think it’s probably also true that many speakers can sometimes make major improvements just by making a small tweak in the style, content, or both, of their presentation. Here I’m thinking about some advice I came across in Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter’s recent book, The Articulate Attorney (2nd Ed. 2013). They discuss the difficulties we encounter in maintaining audience attention. This problem is crucial if your goal in speaking is anything other than pure entertainment because it is unlikely your audience–a jury, for example–will process and retain anything you say if they’re not paying attention. Johnson and Hunter write:

“Listeners pay close attention to the beginnings of presentations. Minds often wander in the middle, and retention drops. When the listener gets a signal that the end is near–‘In conclusion . . .’–attention increases once again. Primacy is the first thing listeners hear; recency is the last.” (Id. at 85.)

I have elsewhere heard a variation on this observation, with the attendant advice that one should structure a presentation so that the really important information comes at the beginning and the end. I suppose that’s better than nothing. But the logical implication is that the information that comes between the beginning and the end is less important, or not important at all. I don’t know about you, but I try to leave information that is less important or unimportant out altogether. And we can’t very well just have a beginning and an end with no middle, can we?

Johnson and Hunter offer a superior alternative. They urge speakers to “chunk,” or divide larger bits of information into smaller chunks, which is easier for the human brain to receive, process and retain. Additionally, rather than a speech which consists of one strong beginning, a middle and one strong ending, they urge speakers to create several rather discrete chunks, each with its own beginning, middle and ending. They write:

“Since beginnings and endings are good, create more of them. Rather than conceive your presentation as having one beginning and one ending, clearly delineate each topic area. Begin new topics with a headline (begin/primacy) and explicitly mark the conclusion of the topic with a wrap-up (end/recency). When your major ideas are demarcated in this fashion, your presentation will have many beginnings and endings. Each time a new topic is headlined and closed out, the daydreaming (or emailing) listener’s attention is refreshed.” (Id. at 87.)

So go on, be a “chunker.”


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.”


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.


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