Tag Archives: law

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.”


Could The Legal Profession Ever Become Extinct?

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A Dodo or Licensed Lawyer Circa. 2075?

Could licensed lawyers ever go the way of the Dodo and S & H Green Stamps?

I came across this recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the growing interest by non-traditional law school students in signing up for selected law school courses and seeking non-JD graduate-level law degrees (i.e., a Masters) in discreet areas of the law, such as health care, etc. The article got me wondering whether anything could ever bring about a long-term shift away from a world in which graduate students incur huge debt to obtain JD degrees, sit for an arduous 18 hour bar examination, get their license, only to learn that: (1) there are too few available jobs for newly-minted lawyers; (2) many lawyers will only use a fraction of the information we learned during law school; and (3) although we are “fiduciaries” only about 31-38% of the public trusts their lawyers–anything could cause a glacial shift away from this world into one in which tasks and responsibilities traditionally handled by licensed lawyers are done instead by non-lawyers who may (or may not) have specialized training to enable them to assume that responsibility or perform that task.

While I’m just musing, some wonk has surely crunched the numbers and stands ready with a handy statistic about how much this change has already occurred. After all, NOLO has been around since the 1970s. LegalZoom and similar providers have (apparently successfully) developed products and services specifically designed to omit lawyers from supposedly “simple” transactions such as corporate formation, or the drafting of a trust or will. Sophisticated organizations, including realtor associations, already provide for arbitrations with non-lawyer industry experts serving as the neutrals to resolve a dispute. I also know of potentially expensive and protracted divorce disputes that were resolved with reduced time, expense and pain through the involvement of psychologist-lawyer mediation teams.

Let me be clear about what I am not talking about. Professors, bloggers and writers have discussed ad nauseam the disruptive and earth-shaking changes in the business of law (along with the “business” of teaching lawyers their trade) which have largely occurred over the past half-decade. I neither pretend nor want to contribute to this discussion. This is not about The New Normal, whatever you may think of that label. I don’t care whether or how NOLO or LegalZoom might impact the annual Profits Per Partner at Skadden (it won’t) or the profits of a sole practitioner in Visalia, California (it might), or will cause some random law school to shut its doors.

I’m talking instead about the future of our profession. The future of the idea that we are a civilization that needs expensive intermediaries, people specially trained to do our thinking, drafting and arguing for us. That we are a civilization in which two people who reach an agreement need two (or more) comparatively expensive people to reduce it to writing. Or that we lack the ability to argue effectively on our own behalf, without a mouthpiece, about anything more serious than a small debt or a traffic ticket. Are we still going to be that civilization in the future? Or could we ever evolve into a civilization in which lawyers are those jokers they talk about in history books? “I once saw one!”

What, if anything, does it say about the interest, ability and willingness of the public to commit to become more do-it-ourself with regard to tasks and responsibilities formerly handled exclusively by licensed lawyers? By the same token, what could it say about the interest and willingness of people who once thought they wanted to be a licensed lawyer to elect instead to focus their education on a sub or sub-sub-speciality of law (saving $100,000 + in tuition in the process)?

I’m not suggesting any of this could happen soon. Our systems are not ready for it. For example, while citizens are presently free to represent themselves in civil and criminal courts, I can’t even begin to suggest that it’s a good idea for anybody. I’ve been practicing in courts for 20 years, but it would never (ever) occur to me to represent myself in any criminal matter beyond a speeding ticket (and even then). But, like all things, this could change. If criminal and civil courts ever became pro se-friendly . . . (Don’t laugh. Stop it.)

I’m also not taking the position that a civilization without a legal profession would be better or worse than ours. Just different.


You Cannot Force A California Employee To Disclose Her Facebook Password, Unless . . .

A new California law restricts an employer’s right to seek access to existing or prospective employees’ social media accounts.

The law, Chapter 2.5 of Part 3 of Division 2 of the Labor Code (commencing with Section 980),  defines “social media” for purposes of the new law to mean “an electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or Internet Web site profiles or locations.”

Under the new law, employers cannot request existing or prospective employees to disclose either a username or password, to access a personal social media account in the presence of the employer, or to divulge any personal social media.  It is also unlawful to retaliate against an employee or applicant for refusing such a request. 

Important exceptions to the law are (1) where divulging social media is “reasonably believed” to be relevent to an investigation of an employee’s violation of law or allegations of employee misconduct; and (2) if done for the purpose of accessing an employer-issued electronic device.


Should the California State Bar Add a Skills Requirement?

The California State Bar has apparently formed a task force to explore whether to “develop a regulatory requirement for a pre-admission practical skills training program” for new lawyers.  Is this a good idea? 

I think requiring a prospective new attorney to complete some kind of practical skills training is a really good idea.  With some caveats. 
First, the requirement  shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.  In the perfect world, every prospective lawyer would get some exposure to various practices before he/she focuses, by choice or necessity, on a single area.  Many of us litigators will wonder until we retire what it would have been like to practice as a transactional lawyer (and vice versa).  That said, it would take a major overhaul of  the American style of legal education to expose everyone to a little bit of everything.  A more palatable approach would be to give prospective admittees a range of reasonable options for fulfilling the requirement. 

The second caveat would be to avoid attaching a mandated proficiency level to the skills requirement.  In California, at least, passing the bar examination is hard enough.  Of the 4,382 people who took the California bar exam this past February, only 42 % passed and only 53% of those taking it for the first time passed.  Those kind of statistics can be really discouraging to someone who invested  3 or 4 years of their life and roughly $100,000 toward a professional career.  We don’t need to make the admission process more intellectually challenging.

I would argue that we do, however, owe both new practitioners and the consuming public an obligation to help ensure someone who holds a license to practice law has some basic practical skills.  By the time I graduated law school and passed the bar examination in 1993, I had already “clerked” for two litigation firms.  I had been exposed to depositions and court (as an observer), I had written, copied, blue-backed (remember those?), served and filed pleadings and motions.  In short, I had a decent idea what courtroom lawyers did for a living.  Although the early 1990s are typically remembered as a “challenging” job market for students and new admittees, most of my classmates who desired experience during the summers and their second and third years of law school found it. 

From what I read and hear, the present legal job market makes the “challenging” early 1990s look almost like a “boom” period.  At a time when new admittees who graduated at the top of their class from a top-tier school are struggling to find a position as an associate anywhere, it makes me believe the opportunities to gain practical experience before passing the bar examination are more limited.  This will need to be addressed or our profession (and reputation) will (further)erode. 

The major criticism of a skills requirement is that it will increase the cost of legal education.  I fail to see the link between ensuring that bar applicants have some skills to go along with their theoretical training and higher law school cost.  It may be necessary to adjust the nature of what is taught, meaning more clinical programs.  Or, the solution could  be training through volunteer or pro bono programs which, in addition to fulfilling the skills requirement, provides the disadvantaged with greater access to needed legal services.

Without the training I received during my two years as a “law clerk,” I still would have received training at the first firm who hired me as a lawyer.  The problem now, as I see it, is that many are graduating law school, passing the bar and entering the marketplace without a job, forcing a great number of those who intend to enter private practice to open a solo practice without any skills training.  These newly minted professionals will learn, eventually, by a process of trial and error, but woe to those who hire them!


Why Your Lawyer Must Be A Strong Writer

Few would argue with the suggestion that a crucial skill for any lawyer who makes a living helping clients resolve disputes is the ability to persuade.  Anybody can look up a case.  And, while novel arguments or clever strategies can enjoy a certain symmetrical beauty, the ability to persuade, to sell, is ultimately what separates a good or great lawyer from the merely adequate.  To this premise, I would add that the ability to write, to string together sentences in a clear, articulate and persuasive manner, is the most crucial skill of all and one clients should absolutely insist upon.

Why is writing such a critical skill to our trade?  Conceptually, persuasive writing doesn’t just require a command of language, it compels organization.  Even a point delivered orally requires a structure, if it is going to persuade.  Clear writing always embodies this structure.  It reflects the ability to conceptualize and frame an argument.  Like the frame of a house, a clearly framed argument helps guide the reader—often a judge—follow on the journey to the desired conclusion.  It lays a firm foundation for the real magic which, in the context of the law, is the synthesis, or interweaving, of evidentiary facts with a governing rule.  There is no substitute for the ability to organize and frame an argument.

In modern civil disputes, it is always a written instrument—a complaint or claim—which sets a case in motion.  While it’s certainly possible to win a massive verdict or coax a settlement out of a case premised on an inartfully drafted complaint, the complaint frames the issues, sets the tone of the case, and introduces the parties and their lawyer.  If the complaint is sloppy, exaggerates or overreaches, it underwhelms both the judge and the lawyer on the receiving end.   The judge may become prejudiced.  Equally important, there can be a subtle, almost imperceptible, shift in the balance of power between the opposing lawyers.  Respect between counsel must typically be earned; it is rarely presumed.

Most crucial of all, ask any civil trial or appellate judge and you will hear that, in all but the rarest instances, an argument is won or lost on the quality of the papers.  This is not to discount the importance of having favorable law or facts.  But good law or compelling facts are worthless if your lawyer has not articulated them in a clear and persuasive manner.

Clients should demand their lawyer have impeccable writing skills!


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