COVID forces old-school lawyers to embrace new technology

Tennessee Courts get yanked into the 21st Century. This week, I’ve had two telephonic court hearings.  They’ve both been a little strange.

On one, I called the Clerk’s office, who then gave me the Judge’s cell phone number. When I called the Judge on her cell phone, she was pretty clearly on a walk outside.

On the other, the court set up a call-in line for the docket call, with about 25 attorneys waiting for their specific matter to be called. When my matter was called, about 6 attorneys all spoke at once.

When my matter was over, I stayed on the line and listened to the next argument (on mute) to see how it flows and to plan for when I have to conduct my own complicated hearing. I learned that there is definitely an art to effective presentation via a phone call.  Also, it was weird, just silently lurking. A Bloomberg news reporter listened in on a similar court hearing, and she described it as “uncomfortable and oddly voyeuristic.”

I think all this can be figured out, but there’s definitely going to be learning curve.  The Tennessee Supreme Court conducted oral arguments via video this past week, and those went well.

Although, if I were one of the lawyers arguing, I would have 100% had to stand up for my presentation.

tn sup cort

Personally, I’m not looking forward to more telephone or video hearings. I go to court a lot, and there’s so much you pick up by physically present in the courtroom, whether it’s a good read on the judge’s demeanor that day, on opposing counsel, or just the ability to be physically present when you’re making a huge argument for a client.

There is simply so much that goes into oral argument, and there’s so little of that in a phone call.

Zoom. Maybe we don’t need to see each other.  Speaking of how technology maybe doesn’t always make things better, when all this first hit, everybody wanted to do a Zoom call. But, then, after a week of seeing the decorations in everybody’s guest bedroom, we sort of figured out that all this could have been done via conference call.

Personally, I can’t decide where I look: at who is speaking; at myself (which I’m usually doing); or directly at the camera. Bonus points to the participants who just leave their camera off the whole time.

Either way, I guess I fall in the middle on this app. In some situations, it makes sense to be able to see the person and get a read of their social cues or to establish a rapport. For example, I represent a large class of clients on a matter, and I like to communicate with them via video so they can see me and my team.

Slack.  I acknowledge that I sound like a curmudgeon.  So, to counteract that, I’ll provide a whole-hearted endorsement of Slack, the real time messaging platform.  It seems like a really effective and well-done way to manage work teams.

Side-note: If you’re navigating all of this, I can’t recommend the Lawyerist website enough, as well as the Lawyerist podcast.  It’s run by a group of very smart lawyers, and they constantly talk about remote work, law firm management, and law tech and innovations.

I really enjoy all that they do on that site to educate lawyers.

New Developments versus Custom and Habit. It’s hard to tell how much of this is temporary or here to stay. Some part of that answer will depend on the Court leadership forcing all counties to fully embrace the new rules, policies, and technology.

Yesterday, we were figuring out how to get a garnishment form notarized with all of us spread out over town.  One of the lawyers on the e-mail chain correctly pointed out that Tenn. R. Civ. P. 72 and the brand new Supreme Court Orders allow for /e/-signatures and declarations in place of a notarized signature.

This was a garnishment, though, in a very small county, one that probably hasn’t read the Order from last week, and where the front desk clerk would take one look at the form, see the lack of a notarized signature, and potentially reject the filing.

This is what makes collections so different than other aspects of the law. Once you get the judgment, instead of dealing mainly with a judge, you’re mostly dealing with court clerk staff. You can be technically and legally correct, but, if you don’t follow their habit and custom?

Long story short, we got it notarized. Our goal wasn’t to be right. It was to get our garnishment issued.

My hope for all of this is that the Administrative Office of the Courts establishes a commission to look at all these issues and to anticipate as many of these issues that could arise in the future. And I hope that they don’t just pick the usual same people from the usual same big law firms to participate. Those lawyers don’t talk to clerks. They don’t file e-file documents. They don’t go to court on all kinds of matters.

The decisions that are being made today may set the policies and procedures across the state for years, and it’ll be interesting to see what changes implemented during this pandemic become the new custom and practice.

341: Coronavirus Impacts Tennessee Courts, and Creditors too

No Suits, No Ties, No Court…For the Rest of This Month! Tennessee Courts acted quickly in response to COVID-19. On Friday, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an Order that all courts will remain “open” (sort of) during the coronavirus outbreak. I say “sort of” because all in-person judicial proceedings will be suspended through March 31, 2020.

I’m a litigator, and I generally appear in court 3 to 4 times a week. This is going to be weird. I usually appreciate days when I don’t have to wear a suit or tie to work, but this might be too much non-court time. Especially since I’ll be spending this time, 24/7, with my small children.

I love them, but they make the most unreasonable judge seem like a breath of fresh air.

My collections clients are going to hate this. For many courts, the inability to appear at court proceedings means, effectively, that court is closed. Specifically, I’m talking about General Sessions Court, where judgments get entered only in open court.

Following the Supreme Court’s lead, Davidson County General Sessions Court announced they will be closed to in-person proceedings, except for very limited matters (generally criminal matters), through April 13, 2020, at the earliest.

This means that there will be no debt collection dockets or evictions in Nashville for over a month. You can file new lawsuits all month long, because the Clerk will remain operational to accept new filings, including a “drop-box” for non-in-person filings.

This is good news from a “disease containment” sense, as it’s designed to limit physical access in a very bustling courthouse. It’s also good news for those who are economically impacted by the shut down of our local economy.

But, for landlords with pending eviction actions (i.e. non-paying tenants who had already been in default), these extra weeks will be frustrating.

Creditor attorneys won’t like it either. And, for creditor attorneys whose livelihood depends on that monthly collections disbursement check from the Clerk, any interruption in the Clerk’s ability to meet customers to accept judgment payments, process those payments, and disburse those payments will create a huge cash flow problem.

I’m guessing if debtors can’t get in the door, there’s a chance that they can’t get to the Clerk to make their weekly/monthly payments.

The only civil hearings you’ll see are TRO hearings. The Supreme Court order lists a number of exceptions for legal proceedings involving life, liberty, and limb, but most civil actions will not be heard.

The only civil law exception is for “Proceedings related to petitions for temporary injunctive relief.”

That’s a good exception. Injunctions are generally described as “extraordinary relief,” and they are designed to address emergency situations.

I wonder if the Courts will enter “no response” orders–orders that generally get granted as a matter of course and without a hearing, when there’s no response filed.

All Middle District of Tennessee Bankruptcy Court Chapter 13 Meeting of Creditors will be conducted via Zoom.us online video conference. On Friday, the Chapter 13 Trustee sent around an email announcing that all 341 Meetings would be conducted via Zoom online conferences. I think this is very smart, to reduce the number of people having to come to court and, at the same time, to keep the process moving forward.

But, it’s going to have a steep technological and learning curve. I suspect this is going to be a difficult process to master, but I’m impressed with the quick response and effort.

You’ll be getting Zoom invites from me next week. So, I’ve struggled with finding a good mass/video communication platform, and I’ve experimented with a few services.

If it’s good enough for Jordan Furlong, then it’s good enough for me.

Well, with all the great press I’m seeing about Zoom, I signed up and did my first test run this morning, with my 8 year old in the next room. It went fairly flawlessly and was very user-friendly.

341: Nashville lawyers go to US Supreme Court, while Memphis lawyers settle the most talked about Tennessee lawsuit

From the Supreme Court to Nashville... I’m on a plane from Washington, DC, with about 7 Nashville lawyers riding with me, after yesterday’s United States Supreme Court oral arguments that featured Nashville bankruptcy lawyers on both sides.

Here’s how SCOTUS Blog framed the issue: whether a bankruptcy court’s denial of a creditor’s motion seeking relief from the automatic stay is a “final” order that is immediately appealable.

This was a pretty obscure procedural issue, and I pity those poor student groups who sat through the animated back-and-forth about what a “proceeding” is in Bankruptcy Court.

It was a great day for the Nashville bankruptcy bar, and the lawyers on both sides really shined. It was also my first trip to the Big Courthouse, and I’m planning a longer post about the experience for early next week.

Save Bluff City Law! I was forwarded the attached e-mail petition, created by a Memphis lawyer, trying to rally support for NBC’s legal drama Bluff City Law.

I’m impressed by the grass-roots activism from the Memphis bar, and I have to admit, the show makes the practice of law in Memphis look very exciting and scenic. I’m signing the petition.

Bluff City Law, Indeed. Talking about national attention focused on the Memphis bar, it looks like there’s a potential resolution in the James Wiseman v. NCAA and the University of Memphis lawsuit filed in Shelby County Chancery Court.

Here’s my blog post about it from the weekend.

The Daily Memphian interviewed me for their story, What comes next in James Wiseman’s eligibility saga?, about the various legal issues and strategies presented (which, I’ve been told, ESPN’s Jay Bilas quoted in an on air interview!)

No deed goes unpunished, and this involved me diving deep into federal court jurisdictional issues, whether a “nominal defendant” destroys complete diversity, and looking up the exact nuances of Injunctive relief procedure.

Trust me, this was the first time this 26 year old reporter ever cited Wright on Federal Procedure.

Regardless, I love the Daily Memphian, and it got me this close to appearing on the Geoff Calkins radio show as a legal expert. I was scheduled to appear on Monday, but a producer bumped my appearance.

It was with great shame that I notified my Memphis friends and family that I was bumped to make room for listener call-ins.

Speaking of great shame… I was alerted that the following blurb and text auto-posted over the weekend. To be clear, the words below this blurb are a quote from the advice column, not how I feel (at least not all the time).

The opening line? “I’m a litigation attorney and am absolutely miserable.”

341: In 2019, you don’t want to be called any of these: Developer; Bachelor Bro; Lawyer; Podcaster.

“How ‘Developer’ Became Such a Dirty Word.” That’s the title of this New York Times article, talking about the  impact of opportunistic development throughout the boroughs (spoiler alert: it’s not good).

The developers are coming. They’ve got the politicians in their pockets and the gaudy architectural plans in their hands. They will gorge on the entire city. And they won’t stop until peak profit has been wrung from every patch of land.

This is a problem everywhere, and, here in Middle Tennessee, we have front row seats.

In fact, as Nashvillians prepare to head to the polls next month, it’s interesting that the recurring (and most damaging) insult hurled by Mayor David Briley at challenger John Cooper is that Cooper is a  “millionaire developer.Continue reading “341: In 2019, you don’t want to be called any of these: Developer; Bachelor Bro; Lawyer; Podcaster.”

341: Lawyers Doing Good Matters

My law firm recently met with a public relations group, who gave us the pitch on all the things they could do for us, including beefing up our presence on LinkedIn, posting special interest stories on our corporate Facebook page, and more Twitter updates.

After this week of front page stories and national press, I’m not sure we need too much help. Here’s a look at the stories we’ve been involved in this week…

Continue reading “341: Lawyers Doing Good Matters”