Law- General

Defense Research Institute poll shows most people are confident in the fairness of our civil courts

A poll recently released by the Defense Research Institute found that an overwhelming majority of respondents found that our civil courts are fair.

Check out the DRI’s release here. Note that the headline says “41% Doubt Fairness of Civil Courts” when the article explains that 58% expressed confidence in court decisions.

There are other interesting nuggets here as well. 83% said that the side with the most money for lawyers usually wins. That’s really interesting in terms of personal injury litigation, where generally only one side has money for lawyers, and the other side only has a lawyer at all because of the existence of a contingent fee agreement.

57 to 59 percent said that they would tend to favor an individual in a dispute with an insurance, oil or financial company.

Every day we battle the misperception that our clients are out for “jackpot justice” from a jury system that is out of control. The poll results reflected this. 48% thought juries made decisions based on personal opinion rather than the facts and the law. 69% thought that judges base their decisions on the facts and the law and not personal opinion.

Here’s the interesting part: 64% said that they would prefer a jury trial to a bench trial. Even though I’m not a statistician, I can see that at least some of these numbers don’t seem to be consistent. I will leave that discussion for people who are more proficient at math than I am. There’s a reason I am a personal injury lawyer and not an economist.

What I think that data means is that most regular people, with their own case on the line, place their faith in the ability of regular citizens like them to reach a just result. Even if some of the time they think that just result is reached on the basis of emotion and not just the facts and the law.

As an added bonus, 75% saw jury duty as a civic duty and not as a burden, and 81% of those who had served said the experience was a positive one. I think much of the issue of people’s perception of fairness in civil courts stems from a lack of familiarity. I’d like to see the responses on the perceptions of fairness if the data were compiled solely from the responses of those who had participated in a civil case as a party or as a juror. The DRI website has some links to more specific data than the press release contains, but it doesn’t look like the data were sorted that way.

Sorry, your case is now on standby

Two weeks ago I had a trial scheduled to begin on a Monday.

It was a jury trial that was set for two days, to begin on an agreed date that had been selected 8 months earlier.  My client and his three witnesses all cleared their schedules to make sure they were available.  I had blocked off the time on my calendar, and so did the two lawyers involved on the defense side.

The Friday before the trial was supposed to start, I received a call from the court’s assignment office.  We wouldn’t be able to begin our trial as scheduled, because there was no judge available.  This put us on standby.  That meant that I could be called any time before 1:30 p.m., and I would have an hour to get to court with my client and my witnesses, ready to begin the trial.  If I wasn’t called by 1:30, I was instructed to call back at 3:30 to see if we would be assigned the next morning.  I called my client and all of his witnesses and let them know of this development.  They were not exactly pleased.

Of course, when Monday came, I was not called before the deadline.

So as instructed, I called back at 3:30.  I was told that we were not assigned for the next day, as there was still no judge available.  We would be on standby again, until 12:00 p.m.  If we were not reached by noon, the case would be postponed and a new date selected.  After asking, I learned that it didn’t look good for us to be assigned the next day, and that there were other cases older than mine that were also on standby.  I called my client and his witnesses to let them know what was going on.  Unsurprisingly, they had not gotten any happier about this scheduling problem.

The next day, I sat by the phone until noon hoping we would be called.  Of course, we were not reached.  Again, I waited until 3:30 and called the assignment office again to find out about having the case reset.  They told me that I would get a call the following week, because “the girl who does that is out on vacation until then.”  Again, I relayed all of this information to my client and the witnesses.  At this point, they were equal parts disappointed the case didn’t go forward and annoyed at how the scheduling was done.

Last week, I got a call from the court looking to clear dates on which the trial could be reset.  From a man.  I guess “the girl who does that” is still on vacation.  Now the case is tentatively rescheduled for 6 months from now.  I’m told that we will have a priority if the same thing happens again, but I hope I don’t have to find out.

Please don’t take this as “woe is me.”  I’ve been a lawyer for a while now, and this is not the first time something like this has happened to me.  I know it’s done that way to maximize the efficiency of the court, so that they never have a courtroom sitting empty.  I’m aware that I am part of a system that does not really care about my convenience.  I understand why it is the way it is, and I am used to it.

But my client and his witnesses are not.  They think this system is completely insane.  When I told them what was going on, it struck me that two of them said basically the same thing: “Oh, I guess some judge decided to go on vacation, and they don’t care if we have to sit and wait.”  I can see why they may have thought that, since August is a big vacation month.  I assured them that was probably not the case, that most likely what happened was that some trial went longer than anticipated, or someone had a sudden illness or family emergency.   I hope that’s true, but I don’t really know.  I am assuming the court would only put a case on standby for a good reason, and if there was at least some chance that it would be reached.

Now I have to tell my client and his witnesses that we are set for a new date, and that I hope the same thing won’t happen again.  Like I said, I’m part of the system and I am used to this sort of thing happening.  But for people who are not part of the system, this looks really bad.  From their perspective, they cleared their very busy schedules only to sit by the phone for two days waiting for a call that never came, without ever being given a reason why they were being inconvenienced that way.  Now they are concerned that this will go the same way the next time.  I can’t say that I blame them for being annoyed.  I can absolutely see why the status quo makes no sense at all to an outsider looking in.

I’m sure that the court and its staff do their best to make sure cases are tried on the dates they are set, and that they think the system they have is the best way to handle these kinds of problems under the circumstances.  I will say that if there is a better way, I hope somebody figures it out pretty soon, because the current system really gives the litigants and the witnesses an unfavorable opinion of our court system.  And once that opinion has taken hold, it is very difficult to change.

A Good Trial Quote

Here is a quote I saw recently that I think applies really well to trial work:
“Don’t let a win get to your head or a loss to your heart.”– from Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

Specifically, this is from the song “He Got Game” from the movie soundtrack of the same name. One thing about Chuck D., he always has something interesting to say.

I am one of those people who hates to lose. I can get over a win very easily, but a loss- not so much. So it is pretty easy to tell why this quote caught my attention.

Just Say No To Lawyer Vanity Plates

Although this blog is focused on topics related to personal injury litigation, every once in a while I see something off-topic that I feel compelled to address.

This is one of those times. The ABA Journal has a photo gallery of law-related vanity license plates (HT to Kristi Tousignant of the Daily Record). A sampling: ICNVCTU, ISUE4U, SUYAL8R, SUEYATOO, LITIG8R, the list goes on and on.

With all due respect (and yes, I mean that exactly as Ricky Bobby said it) to those who think these plates are cool, you are wrong. I feel comfortable saying this. My first reaction when I see one of these is “Haha, tool.” I do not believe I am the only person who thinks this. My research reveals that 98.76% of all people think law-related vanity plates are totally not cool. Although I made that up, I have never met a single person who thought vanity plates were cool that did not have one.

I really don’t understand why some lawyers think these are a good idea. I know I don’t want my jury pool seeing me get out of my car in the courthouse parking lot with a plate that says ISUE4U. And I really can’t imagine how any other lawyer with a plaintiffs’ practice would feel differently.

Maryland’s Top 40 Trial Lawyers Under 40

Everyone likes it when they are offered an award or other professional honor. I know I do. It’s natural to want people to know about it when it happens. The value of receiving professional accolades declines sharply if your potential customers don’t know about it.

I guess blogging about it might be derided as self-congratulatory, or ignored as mere “marketing.” I have decided I don’t care. Haters gonna hate.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce that I have been named one of The National Trial Lawyers’ Top 40 Under 40 for 2012. Membership is offered to only the top 40 plaintiff’s civil or criminal defense trial attorneys in Maryland under 40 years of age (I just squeaked by- I’m 38).

I understand why people sometimes take a cynical view of this sort of thing. A lot of the time, you get a packet in the mail telling you that you have won some sort of “award”, and it turns out to be a pure solicitation: you are being asked to write a large check (I have gotten some asking for as much as $1200) in exchange for receiving an impressive-looking certificate and being able to say you got an award.

So when I received the acceptance materials for this, I assumed it was B.S. and let it sit unread in my inbox for about 60 days. Once I finally read it, I went to the web site listing the other lawyers who were included. I found out that most of the Maryland lawyers listed were people I knew, who I think are good lawyers. After verifying it was legitimate, I was happy to accept.

Does this mean that the lawyers named are necessarily better than those who were not? Of course not. But for someone in the market for legal services, a potential lawyer’s inclusion on these sorts of lists is at least one factor to consider in determining if that lawyer has the skills and experience that he claims he does.
Plus, it does come with a cool certificate. I mean, that counts for something, right?

I’ve Been Named One of Maryland’s Top 40 Trial Lawyers Under 40

Everybody likes it when they are offered an award or other professional honor. I know I do. It’s natural to want people to know about it when it happens. After all, what’s the value in getting professional accolades if likely consumers of your services don’t know about them?

Of course blogging about it might be labeled self-congratulatory, or passed off as mere self-promotion for marketing purposes. I have decided I don’t care. Haters gonna hate.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce that I have been named one of The National Trial Lawyers’ Top 40 Under 40 for 2012. Membership is offered to only the top 40 plaintiff’s civil or criminal defense trial attorneys in Maryland under 40 years of age (I just squeaked by- I’m 38).

I understand why people often take a cynical view of this sort of thing. A lot of the time, you get a packet in the mail telling you that you have won some sort of “award”, and it turns out to be a pure solicitation: you are being asked to write a large check (I have gotten some asking for as much as $1200) in exchange for receiving an impressive-looking certificate and being able to say you got an award.

So when I received the acceptance materials for this, I assumed it was B.S. and let it sit unread in my inbox for about 60 days. Once I finally read it, I went to the web site listing the other lawyers who were included. I found out that most of the Maryland lawyers listed were people I knew, who I think are good lawyers. After verifying it was legitimate, I was happy to accept.

Does this mean that the lawyers named are necessarily better than those who were not? Of course not. But for someone in the market for legal services, a potential lawyer’s inclusion on these sorts of lists is at least one factor to consider in determining if a lawyer has the skills and experience that he claims he does.
I am proud to have been included on this list. I may even find a spot for the certificate on my “I love me” wall.

Don’t Forget About Your Witnesess When the Case Settles


I just reached a settlement in a case that was set for trial next week. Obviously that is great news for my client, who now has some closure on a difficult period in his life.
But memorializing the agreement and having the clerk remove the case from the docket doesn’t mean the end of my job when it comes to settlement.

I had subpoenaed three witnesses to appear for trial: an independent “bystander” witness, a traffic engineer from the State Highway Administration, and a police officer. I made sure to contact each of these witnesses as soon as the case resolved to let them know they would not need to appear. They really appreciated that I let them know. The traffic engineer in particular made it a point to let me know how often attorneys subpoena witnesses from his office and then do not let them know when the case settles. Then they travel to court for nothing.

I can’t believe that. It’s just unprofessional, and arguably violates Md. Rule 2-510(h), which states that “[a] party or an attorney responsible for the issuance and service of a subpoena shall take reasonable steps to avoid imposing undue burden or cost on a person subject to the subpoena.” As far as I’m concerned, not telling a witness under subpoena that the case settled and they don’t have to appear causes the witness “undue burden or cost.”

So just a reminder, when your case settles right before trial, make sure to notify the witnesses. That way you can save them the hassle and missed time from work of showing up at court for no reason.

Is Being A Bad Lawyer An Ethical Violation?

The Legal Profession Blog has a post linking to a lawyer discipline case from New York where an attorney was suspended for two years after being sanctioned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Even after the two years is up, he can only practice again after the entry of a court order allowing it.

This is a pretty serious sanction. What did he do? Steal from a client? Miss a filing deadline? Get a criminal conviction? Was he a tax cheat? Nope. He got suspended for being a terrible lawyer. The court noted that on multiple occasions he had submitted briefs of “shockingly poor quality.” Things like getting the names of his clients wrong, including irrelevant boilerplate, referencing evidence that was never submitted, and filing the work of a paralegal without reviewing it.

I am so happy to see a court take a stand like this. My practice is 100% litigation, and you would not believe the astonishingly poor quality of some of the written material I see submitted to both trial and appellate courts. I’m not talking about proofreading or citation errors. Everybody makes a mistake sometimes. I mean stuff so appalling that it is clear that no attempt was made to edit or even read it before filing.

I have a case now where opposing counsel has filed papers with the court certifying that pleadings and discovery were served on me three weeks before the date they were actually mailed to me. When I got them, they were unsigned and turned out to be mostly gibberish. The best part, and I swear to God I am not making this up, is that they were printed in the Comic Sans typeface. I asked twice, in writing, for the filing to be corrected so the court knew the correct dates I received the material. Nothing. It’s the most astonishing thing I’ve seen in 14 years practicing law. I’m now awaiting a ruling on my second motion for sanctions.

I wish courts were more active in policing this kind of thing. But the reality is that most of the time nothing gets done about it unless the behavior is particularly egregious or it is repeated often enough that eventually a judge ends up getting really mad.

A Few Quick Hits

Here are just a few things from around the web that I thought were interesting:
THR, Esq. comments on Teller, of Penn & Teller fame suing another magician for ripping off one of his tricks. The best part of the whole thing is the illustration Teller provided when he copyrighted the trick. Awesome. I’ve seen Penn & Teller, and they rule. To show how they appreciate the audience, after every show they wait in the lobby and meet everyone, sign autographs and pose for pictures. It’s worth every penny of your entertainment dollar. Anyway, they could make that dollar disappear whether you liked it or not, if they wanted to. Just be glad they let you see the show instead.

Can an undocumented immigrant be admitted to the Florida Bar? Everyone’s knee-jerk reaction is probably to say no, but here’s the thing: there’s no rule against it.

Another vote in favor of cooperation among members of the bar- when opposing counsel asks for an extension, think about saying yes. They might get appointed to the bench engaging discussion of an article on Ten Questions You Must Be Prepared to Answer Before Oral Argument, with a hat tip to the BILB!

George Zimmerman’s lawyers have asked the judge to recuse herself. Apparently, her husband is partners with an attorney who was approached to represent Zimmerman, declined, referred him to his current lawyer, and now has been hired by CNN to comment on the case. I don’t know if that creates the quote, unquote “apppearance of impropriety,” but I do know that if I were the judge, I’d be happy to kick that traveling circus down the road. I wonder how Lance Ito’s doing now?

OK, Who Needs A Nap?

One thing we all know is that we aren’t as sharp when we are tired as we are when we are well-rested.
That’s why some occupations have rules about on-duty hours, truck drivers for example. There are federal regulations governing how many hours professional drivers can work. Working in violation of these limitations could be considered evidence of negligence in many circumstances.

Even in the private sector, the Maryland Depatment of Transportation’s Motor Vehicle Administration requires drivers to inform the MVA’s Medical Advisory Board when they are diagnosed with certain sleep-related medical disorders, like sleep apnea or narcolepsy. “The objective of the MAB is to assess medical fitness to drive of individuals who have medical conditions that can impact on their ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.” I think we can all agree that sleep deprivation can be a major factor affecting the abilty to drive a car or truck, or operate heavy machinery.

So it was with great interest that I saw this feature in the Baltimore Sun listing the top ten most sleep deprived professions. The list was put together by Sleepy’s Mattress retailers using data compiled in the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey.

The top 10:
Home health aides
Lawyers
Police Officers
Physicians/paramedics
Economists
Social Workers
Computer Programmers
Financial Analysts
Plant Operators
Secretaries

I dont know if they were listed in order. I’m not surprised at some of these. Policemen, doctors, paramedics and plant workers often work odd shifts because they are in fields where they operate 24 hours a day. It did surprise me that economists and secretaries made the list.

Maybe all of the lawyers reading this (myself included) should make trying to get more or better rest a focus, lest we end up on the wrong side of the “v” as a result of our fatigue.