Monthly Archives: September 2008

Things Young Lawyers Should Know (That They Don’t Teach in Law School).

1. Non-lawyer team members hate being called “staff”. They say the sergeants run the Army. Admins and para-professionals run courts and law firms. Be nice to these people. They know what they’re doing, and you don’t.
You will get nowhere in your professional life looking down on anyone who doesn’t have the letters ESQ after their name. For you to succeed, everyone on your firm’s team has to succeed. Nobody wants to be part of a team that treats them as being less important or not as good as other people. Treat the non-lawyer members of your team like what they are- valuable, skilled professionals. If you are a new lawyer, it’s more than likely that the legal secretaries, paralegals and admins know more about the procedural aspects of your own firm and the courts than you do. They are the keepers of a lot of institutional knowledge. If you treat them with respect, they will be an invaluable asset to you. If you don’t- well, maybe you won’t get the message from Judge Whoever to be in chambers at 8:30 a.m., sharp! Trust me on this, I know what I’m talking about. I was raised by a legal secretary.

2. Some judges answer their own phone. This is a corollary to #1 above. Always treat whoever answers the phone in chambers as if it were the judge. It might be. I’ve had this happen several times. Always be polite. You’ll be happy the one time the judge answers the phone.

3. Get a Maryland State Bar Association Security Identification Pass. I was reminded of this yesterday. While at a hearing in the Circuit Court for Charles County, I met a young lawyer, who has just begun practicing after completing a judicial clerkship. He was lamenting not having a cell phone, because the Charles County courthouse does not allow them. However, if you are an attorney and have a state bar security pass, you don’t go through security and are allowed to bring in your phone. This is a big deal for lawyers like me, who keep their calendar and contacts on a Blackberry or similar device. The state bar pass is accepted in most courthouses in Maryland, and saves a ton of time waiting in line.

4. If you don’t know, ask. Everybody was new once. Most lawyers are more than happy to share their experience with new members of the bar. We all gain by raising the level of competence of the bar as a whole. First, look for help within your firm. If that doesn’t work, find a lawyer who is likely to know the answer and give them a call! If they aren’t willing to talk to you (which won’t happen), call me!

5. Polish your shoes. I read in Jay Foonberg’s How to Get Good Clients and Keep Them that there is an easy way to spot the good lawyers when you go to court. Look around. The ones who look sharp, put together and polished are more likely to be skilled attorneys. Perception matters.

6. Join a professional association. This is a valuable way to make contacts, gain referrals, and keep up your level of professional knowledge. You will generally find that the lawyers who are active in some form of professional association are more informed, more successful, and better regarded within the legal community. For new members of the plaintiff’s bar, the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association has a rejuvenated Young Lawyers Section.

7. Never sign in black ink. This makes it hard to tell the original from the copies. Blue ink stands out on the original so you won’t get confused. When you accidentally file a copy in place of the original, or mail the original out when you should have kept it, you’ll remember I said this.

8. Get a date-stamped copy. Sometime there can be a long delay between filing a pleading with the clerk and it making it into the docket entries or the court file. This can be a lifesaver if someone thinks you missed a SOL or summary judgment deadline.
I’m sure I will think of more of these. I’ll post them up as I think of them.

First Party Bad Faith in UM Cases.

We always have a few cases going on in the office involving car accident injuries caused by uninsured motorists. One of these cases had something interesting happen today.

The defendant insurance company had identified two doctors as expert witnesses. They secured an order compelling plaintiff to submit to an “independent medical examination” (three lies for the price of one, since it’s not independent, nothing medical takes place, and there’s barely any examination). After obtaining opinions from both doctors, the insurer withdrew one as a witness. Unsurprisingly, it was the one whose opinon was more favorable to the plaintiff.

There’s a real argument to be made that this practice exhibits a lack of good faith. Shouldn’t the insurer have to stand by the “independent” opinion they asked for?

Ultimately, it may not matter since there is a real chance we will call this doctor as our own expert now.

Technology for Personal Injury Lawyers

Yesterday, The Daily Record had a feature asking local attorneys their opinion on the biggest way technological advances have impacted the practice of law. Also, last Friday, my colleague Rod Gaston attented the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association’s Technology Seminar. This got me thinking about some of the ways we use technology at Miller & Zois to make our personal injury trial practice more efficient and successful:
Case management- we use a program called TimeMatters for case management. This allows us immediate access to just about all of the information that would be contained in a paper file. This puts us on an even footing with the insurance adjusters, who usually work from a detailed claims database. We can collate client data, emails, documents, medical records and bills, and pleadings all in the same place, and have it all available instantly. This program also allows us to more easily keep track of litigation deadlines. This is a big advantage in keeping a busy practice running smoothly.
Off-site access- we use www.gotomypc.com. This allows our personal injury lawyers and staff to have full access to our office systems from home or wherever we happen to be. All I have to do is log in, and I can do nearly anything I can do at the office. Our lawyers also all carry Blackberries, meaning we are nearly always reachable by phone and email.

Using these systems means that we can accomplish our tasks without lugging a mountain of paper everywhere we go. It also lets us work collaboratively, by sharing documents and ideas instantly, no matter where we are. This makes it easier to be successful using a team concept. One of the things Ron Miller is always talking about is maximizing the skills we have in the office to get the best results for our clients. Using technology, we can involve all of our team members when needed, and quickly and efficiently take advantage of the built-in knowledge we all have in different areas. I think being able to work together quickly is a big advantage in the fast-moving world of personal injury litigation.

What The Heck Is A “Meme?”

As I mentioned a few days ago, Ron Miller tagged me to participate in an internet meme passed along by the Drug and Medical Device Law Blog. The idea is that I am to talk about my five favorite legal and non-legal blogs. So away we go.

Non-Legal:
Profootballtalk.com– This is a blog dedicated to the daily happenings in the NFL. I’m a huge NFL fan, having been a Baltimore Ravens season ticket holder since the day the team came here. I’m still mad that Bob Irsay stole my football childhood. This blog is written by Mike Florio, Jr. His day job is being an attorney, but the rest of the time he does a stellar job of keeping me informed on what’s happening in my favorite sport.

Freakonomics– this blog is written by the authors of the book of the same name. I like it for its occasionally irreverent, out of the box view on the economic and financial topics of the day. This is particularly good lately, because of the apocalyptic state of the U.S. economy.
Carol’s Corner Office– this is an excellent blog for anyone who uses Microsoft office software. It is full of helpful hints and shortcuts to make using Microsoft’s office software easier and more productive. It is particularly useful for law office administrators as the author, Carol Bratt, has over 35 years experience in law office administration and is a Certified Microsoft Office Expert.

Ravens Insider– This is the Baltimore Sun’s excellent blog on the hometown team. Since the Baltimore Ravens are a central part of my life this time of year, I check this blog just about every day to see what’s going on with my favorite team. If you make it out to M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday, look for me in Section 103, Row 5, Seat 22. Go Ravens!

Baltimore Crime Blog– I’m a Baltimoron through and through. Its not an accident that my home town has starred in Homicide, The Wire and The Corner. We’re hard here. Cop: “Mr. Little, how does a man rob drug dealers for eight or nine years and live to tell about it?” Omar (the baddest man on TV, ever.): “One day at a time, I suppose?”. The Baltimore Crime Blog shows you how unfortunately realistic these TV shows are. And, hopefully how things are improving.
OK. Now my five favorite legal blogs:
Trial Lawyer Resource Center: This is what it sounds like. It’s an excellent tool for trial attorneys looking to improve their advocacy skills, or just looking for new ideas on trial presentation. It’s written by a group of experienced trial lawyers, including our very own Ron Miller, so it contains a variety of ideas and viewpoints.

The Art of Advocacy– This is written by an outstanding local attorney, Paul Mark Sandler. He is full of useful thoughts on the legal profession. The best thing he offers are his thoughts on written and oral advocacy. I have used his books Appellate Practice for the Maryland Lawyer: State & Federal, and Pleading Causes of Action more times than I can count. This is great for lawyers who care about advocacy, and want to do it the right way. His work is an incredible benefit to the Maryland Bar.

Maryland Law– This originally named blog is focused on legal research. It is written by Trevor Rosen, a researcher at the Baltimore law firm Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler. It is full of useful tips for lawyers who do research. The plaintiff’s personal injury bar has a (deserved) reputation for less-than-stellar written advocacy. More plaintiff’s lawyers should add this blog to their bookmarks.

Maryland Accident Lawyer Blog– This is a new Miller & Zois blog written by Laura Zois. Laura is a wonderful trial lawyer, and I’m sure her new blog will be a great success.

Maryland Judiciary Case Search– OK, I’m cheating. This isn’t a blog at all. I have included it because its arguably the single most important tool on the internet for Maryland Personal Injury Lawyers. All court filings in Maryland are public record and are available on this site. So this is where to go to find out if your defendant has a criminal record, or has been sued before, or how active your opposing counsel is in trying cases. I use it every day.

Progressive Convinces Customers to Consent to “Big Brother” Box

I know I’ve been tagged by Ron Miller to continue a “meme” including my five favorite legal and non-legal blogs. That’s upcoming, but I couldn’t pass this one up.

Today’s Daily Record reports that Progressive Insurance has convinced some of its customers to allow the installation of a “black box” in their vehicles that will track “abrupt starts and stops, speed, and even time of day.” The data from this device will be used to compute the auto insurance rates for the customers who consent to its install. They concede this device is not something that will appeal to all drivers.

My personal belief is that anyone who would want something like this is an idiot. I want my insurance company tracking my driving habits about as much as I want the NSA reading my email. However, this blog isn’t about the relative intelligence of Progressive customers.

What I am interested in is the possible effect this could have on litigating car accident injury cases. It seems to me that the data compiled by this device would be a proper subject of discovery in litigation, since it’s a real-time recording of the actions of the vehicle. This will probably lead to a host of objections based on proprietary data, privacy of the driver, etc. Also, how would one get this decoded?

I can’t imagine very many people would consent to such a device being installed, but eventually somebody who has one is going to get sued, and some smart plaintiff’s lawyer is going to ask for the data. Then things will get interesting.

State Farm Lawyer’s Response to My Trial Report

Regular readers, assuming there are some, may recall my July 30, 2008 post on an Uninsured Motorist injury case I tried in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County.

Yesterday, I received a comment to that blog post from Mark Brown of H. Barritt Peterson & Associates, who was defense counsel in the case. This is a firm of attorneys who are employees of State Farm Insurance, and do nothing but defend State Farm and its insureds when they become involved in litigation. I deal with these folks all the time. They are one of the better staff counsel offices out there. They fight hard, but are generally reasonable in conducting litigation and easy to get along with. Mark is a nice guy and a talented lawyer who did an excellent job in this case.

I’m talking about this for two reasons. One- my personal belief is that if I am going to put myself out there and take stances on legal issues and my cases I should be prepared to stand by those positions. I could have elected to leave Mark’s comment “unpublished”, but I don’t think that’s fair. Two- I strongly believe that there are two sides to every story and that considering and discussing viewpoints that differ from my own can lead to good insights. You don’t learn much discussing issues with people who already agree with you.

At Miller & Zois, we are glad defense attorneys and insurance adjusters read our blogs. We think this shows the quality of the information we provide, and that the legal community knows we will try cases and do the best we can for our clients.

Mark’s additional information about the case is all correct. The client did have $60,000.00 in medical bills, including a spinal fusion surgery. I agree that the result was clearly a compromise verdict, since it awarded the medical bills only, and nothing for wage loss or pain and suffering.

I don’t really see where Mark is coming from with the “editorial” comment. The fact is that State Farm did argue my client was contributorily negligent, did argue that the surgery was unrelated to the accident, and did hire a doctor to write a report saying that.

On the other hand, if Mark was talking about the part where I described State Farm as “an insurer known for its hardball tactics and low settlement offers.” I agree that’s “editorial.” I also stand behind my comments. Ask 100 Maryland personal injury lawyers if what I said is accurate comment, and see how many disagree.

I still don’t understand the settlement offer originally made. State Farm offered $7,000.00 to settle this case before trial. Even if the real value of the case at trial was just the $60,000.00 in medical bills, how on earth is $7,000.00 a reasonable settlement offer? (I am in no way trying to imply that was Mark’s call, by the way.)

Moreover, an offer of the amount of the medical bills would have settled the case well prior to trial.
Let’s just pretend State Farm can call this one a win because the verdict didn’t include all of the claimed damages. Think about that. The jury verdict is 8.57 times the amount of the settlement offer, without even awarding all of the damages claimed. This is what injury plaintiffs and their attorneys are up against.

This is similar to the experience Ron Miller wrote about in his Maryland Injury Lawyer Blog. Ron got a verdict three times the settlement offer in his case, but still “lost”.

Obviously these offers are made because people take them. Ron is correct that a lot of the time clients take offers that are too low because they wish to avoid the process of going through the trial. I settled a case with State Farm today in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City under such circumstances. But, on the other hand, more lawyers should try these cases when the client is willing. Maybe this would lead to offers more in line with the actual value of cases at trial.

If you are an injured person considering hiring a personal injury attorney, ask the lawyer you are considering how many injury cases they have taken to trial in the last year. The answer will tell you a lot about the quality of the representation you will get.

More Deposition Tips

Yesterday I blogged about the special challenges inherent in conducting a deposition through an interpreter.

This is an important skill for Baltimore City injury lawyers. Historically, Baltimore City has been home to many generations of immigrants. This trend has continued, with Baltimore City’s latino population rising. The jurisdictions surrounding Baltimore City also have many residents for whom English is a second language, notably Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. There are also increasing Spanish-speaking populations on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. So taking and defending cross-cultural depositions is an important skill for personal injury lawyers.

Injury lawyers preparing for depositions using interpreters may want to take a look at A Lawyer’s Guide to Cross-Cultural Depositions. Nina Ivanichvili sent me this article in response to yesterday’s blog post. Her article provides a number of useful thoughts on this topic. For example, she speaks about how important it is to have some idea of the deponent’s cultural assumptions in order to get the required facts from the deposition. Nina also has a blog called Translation for Lawyers.

Using Interpreters at Depositions

Today I had to take the deposition of a defendant driver in a car accident injury case inPrince George’s County. This gentleman spoke spanish only, so the deposition had to be conducted through a court-certified interpreter.

This was not a new experience for me, so I knew what to expect- it would be a pain. I hate these kinds of depositions because they take forever. Counting the interpreter, everything gets said at least twice.

At the end of the deposiiton I asked the interpreter if there is anything I can do next time to make the deposition go more smoothly.

What she told me was a reminder of something I already knew, which is to always address the witness in the first person, rather than saying to the interpreter “[a]sk him if….” Apparently I did this once during the depositon without really thinking about it. A valuable lesson for an otherwise uneventful Tuesday.

How to Get A Stipulation at Trial

Today I had a trial in an auto accident injury case. My case was in Montgomery County District Court. It was what I call a “left turn” case. The defendant driver made a left turn across my client’s path, causing a pretty forceful collision.

The crash was bad enough that my guy wasn’t able to tell the responding paramedics where he was or what time it was. He did know what day it was. Later he suffered from nausea, believed to be from a concussion. While he was in the hospital (2 days), he needed help from an occupational therapist to use the bathroom and to brush his teeth. Ultimately, he needed about a month of medical treatment. He was treated by the hospital’s attending orthopedist and got physical therapy from a therapist that the orthopedist referred him to.

The insurance carrier contested liability at trial. The defendant driver said in his interrogatory answers that my guy was contributorily negligent because he was speeding.

At trial, he testified that he was making left turn on a yellow light. He said that he looked both ways and saw no oncoming traffic. He also said that his view of oncoming traffic was obscured, and that once he was halfway through his turn, all of a sudden Plaintiff’s truck was there and there was a collision. He never said anything about my client’s speed.

My guy testified that he was heading straight at about 30 miles per hour. He said that he looked up and saw the green light overhead when he was about 100 feet from the intersection. That’s the last thing he remembers until he wakes up in the hospital.

In Maryland, the law is that a driver who enters an intersection on a yellow signal may lawfully proceed through the intersection, even if the light subsequently changes to red. It’s also the law that a vehicle making a left turn must yield the right of way to oncoming traffic.
My theory of the case was that using the defendant’s admissions, I could prove liability even though my client had no idea what happened. I thought it was likely that the light was the same for both the defendant and my guy since they were going in opposite directions on the same road.

So I subpoenaed a traffic control engineer from Montgomery County government to testify about the timing of the light. He brought a set of timing diagrams with him, and was ready to testify that if the defendant had a yellow light when he entered the intersection, so did my client. I pointed him out to defense counsel before trial, and she spent a few minutes taking to him as well. I let her know that I would be calling him to testify about the timing of the light.

This is the funny part. Then the defense attorney looks at me and says that I really didn’t need to subpoena the witness, that she would stipulate the light was the same both ways. I told her its funny how when the witness shows up, everyone wants to stipulate! There’s a lesson there, which is that its always more convenient to stipulate to something YOU WERE ALREADY PREPARED TO PROVE. Trust me, it doesn’t work the other way around.

I won the case, because if they both entered the intersection, even on a yellow light, the defendant still had a duty to yield the right of way. Our complaint asked for $30,000.00, and the verdict was $27,000.00. That’s a good result.

I actually think that the defense would have had a better shot on damages in this case if liability was admitted. For a few reasons. One, counsel could have eliminated lengthy cross-examination on liability and used that time for a detailed cross examination on damages. Two, I think the attempt to avoid fault made the defendant (an otherwise nice young guy) look bad so the court didn’t have any pangs of regret making a damages award.

I’m not going be one of those guys who wins every case they blog about. “In my last triumphant victory, I blah, blah, blah….” I hate it when lawyer blogs do that. I’m going to write about the cases that end up in the loss column too. There’s always something to be learned from trial experience.

Opening On The Circuit Court For Baltimore City

There is a vacancy on the Circuit Court for Baltinore City effective September 29, 2008. This opening is due to the retirement of the Hon. Carol E. Smith.

This is big news for Baltimore injury lawyers because of the way judicial rotations work on that court. The judges periodicaly rotate between civil, criminal, and family cases. This means that whoever is appointed will most likely hear some injury cases.

The last vacancy on that court was filled by Marcus Z. Shar, who I thought was an excellent choice. Hopefully, the selection for this spot will be just as good.