Can the failure to respond to Admissions be fixed? New Court of Appeals opinion says “Maybe.”

As a young lawyer, one of the worst tasks I was ever given was to cover a hearing on a motion to deem admissions admitted, where the other lawyer appeared to have simply overlooked the deadline to respond.

Requests for admission are, basically, what they sound like. One party in a lawsuit sends another party a written demand that they admit or deny a specific thing–generally a fact or that a document is authentic. Under Rule 36.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Procedure, if the other party doesn’t respond in 30 days, the fact is conclusively admitted for purposes of the lawsuit.

And, yes, a lawyer receiving these requests and ruin a client’s case if she is not good at calendaring or paperwork.

And many lawyers are not.

So, 20 years ago, as a brand new associate, I was sent down to Williamson County Chancery Court to argue a motion like this where the other lawyer–apparently–simply forgot to respond and, as a result, his client’s fate was at the mercy of a paperwork oversight.

And he was not happy to be arguing his side of the case.

For my side, it wasn’t a particularly hard argument. You tell the Judge the date of the Requests, add 30 days, tell the Judge that there was no response by that date, and cite Rule 36.01.

What made it hard is that the lawyer on the other side was a well-known, respected lawyer, and, generally, as a matter of courtesy, lawyers don’t play “gotcha” with each other on paperwork issues like this. And, even to me–a brand-new lawyer–it was a tough request.

Ultimately, Judge Easter stared at Rule 36.01 for a long time and decided to not hold the other lawyer to 30 days. He gave him more time. I was–frankly–happy to lose that day.

I was reminded of all that when I read the Court of Appeals opinion from yesterday, in Masterfit Medical Supply v. Samuel Bada, No. W2020-01709-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. Apps., Sept. 23, 2021). In that case, a party lost at the trial court level based on his failure to respond to admissions on unpaid invoices.

A critical component of the Court’s opinion, however, was that the complaining party never filed a motion under Rule 36.02 to have the admission withdrawn or amended.

Under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 36.02, “[a]ny matter admitted under this rule is conclusively established unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission. Subject to the provisions of Rule 16 governing amendment of a pre-trial order, the court may permit withdrawal or amendment when the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and the party who obtained the admission fails to satisfy the court that withdrawal or amendment will prejudice that party in maintaining the action or defense on the merits.”

Courts favor deciding cases on the merits and that’s why Rule 36.02 makes sense. As a matter of equity, all kinds of other sworn statements can be clarified, amended, and modified, so why should un-answered admissions be unassailable, where no particular prejudice results?

That day in Williamson County, the other lawyer didn’t argue this rule, but, based on Judge Easter’s clear desire to consider the merits (and not a technicality), it’s clear that the Judge would have welcomed such a request.

Who knew Pineapple Express had such technically accurate legal scenes?

Service of process can drive me and my clients crazy. Before filing the lawsuit, I am in total control of all aspects of the timing of the case, from the initial review to filing the Complaint.

But, once I file the complaint and send it to be served on the defendant, we are sometimes at the mercy of luck and a little bit of good timing.

Nobody wants to be served with a lawsuit (for obvious reasons), and, until you get them served, they have no responsibility to answer and the case doesn’t move forward.

In many cases, a plaintiff has to employ creative tactics to get the process into the hands of the defendant.

You’ve probably seen this in a movie, where the process server hides in the bushes, hands somebody a piece of paper, and yells “You’ve been served!” as he runs away.

So, yes, I thought about the opening sequence from Pineapple Express, when I read a recent opinion by Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Lyle about an evading defendant and an irritated process server, in Joyce B. Martin v. Devon Lawrence, et. al., Davidson County Chancery Court Case No. 20-1091-III.

In that case, the process server was knocking on the defendant’s door, had confirmed that the defendant was inside the house, and, when the defendant refused to come to the door, attempted service pursuant to Rule 4.04(1) by “plac[ing] the summons and complaint into a clear plastic sleeve and tap[ing] it to the glass front door before leaving the [Defendant’s house].”

(The opinion was silent on whether the process server yelled “You’ve been served!” as he walked away, but I would bet money that he did.)

On these facts, however, Chancellor Lyle found the service ineffective. Rule 4.04(1) provides that if a defendant “evades or attempts to evade service,” then the process server may perfect service of process “by leaving copies thereof at the individual’s dwelling house or usual place of abode with some person of suitable age and discretion then residing therein, whose name shall appear on the proof of service, or by delivering the copies to an agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service on behalf of the individual served.”

Citing this Rule’s plain language—which expressly imposes a requirement that the summons be left “with some person of suitable age and discretion then residing therein”—the Judge found that merely taping the summons to the outside of a home does not meet the statutory requirements, even under these circumstances.

(Note: You can read more analysis of this opinion (and see a full copy) by visiting the Nashville Bar Association’s Trial Court Opinion page, which will be updated soon with more notable decisions.)

In a surprise twist, then, Seth Rogen’s stoner private process server turns out to be a highly effective process server whose work would be approved even by Chancellor Lyle (though she may question other aspects about his…demeanor and tactics).

In each instance in the movie clip he, in fact, personally serves each person. We lawyers can be awful to watch movies with, since we love to nit-pick the accuracy of the Hollywood depictions of the job, but this sequence complies with the law (except the part when he’s driving and using illegal substances).

But, other than that–congratulations to Seth Rogen–this clip could be shown in a first-year Civil Procedure class. Who knew?

The 341: Too Busy to Blog, but Listen to this Podcast by Prof. Anthony

You can always tell when I get really, really busy with work: I stop law blogging.

Which is a perfectly reasonable outcome, of course. But, having said that, August was a busy month, so here are some quick notes.

The Tennessee Bar Association interviewed me about starting my own firm during the pandemic. I know we’ve reached peak podcast capacity, but I really enjoy the TBA’s podcasts featuring interesting legal and lawyer stories from across the State. In a time where we’re not seeing each other in court or at events, it’s nice to virtually catch up with what is going on.

I was featured on the TBA’s Sidebar broadcast, and the topic was the decision to leave my long-time law firm to start my own practice. The full episode can be found at this link or by finding Sidebar on SpotifyApple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher or TuneIn.

It was a fun podcast, and, to my surprise, I didn’t collapse into a ball of cringe when I listened to it. Yeah, I used the word “pivot” way more than I (believe) I do in real life, but, otherwise, I was pleased with the message.

As many of you know, I have a tendency toward saying more than is sometimes necessary, and I credit my wife’s advance coaching in that regard. Lena is a writer and a master content creator, and she made sure that I kept it reasonably on topic.

Except, of course, for the opening stories: She expressly told me not to talk about the RV trip or the boat. Oh well, I hope you all enjoyed it. (And, if I have kept one person from buying a boat this summer, my personal embarrassment will have been worth it.)

I’m teaching Client Communication at Belmont’s Law School this semester. Part of the reason that my schedule has been so tight is that I am teaching this fall as an Adjunct Professor at Belmont University’s College of Law.

The course focuses on strategies and best practices in communicating with clients, witnesses, and other parties in the legal system, at all stages of the legal process.

A central tenent of my new firm is to focus on providing client-centered service, asking every step of the way: How are we serving our clients and what can we do better? This is the future, and my goal is to share this mind-set with the next generation of lawyers.

For the first week, I pointed out that all them, whether or not they had any law-related work experience, have already communicated with clients. In our modern age, your social media is the first line of communication about who you are, what you do, and whether you can be trusted. (Hence, my wife’s advice to icksnay on the boatsnay).

The first week’s assignment was my age-old advice: Google Yourself. The students were tasked with seeing what results a potential client would find, deciding which ones were good (or bad), and what action they could take to minimize or eliminate the bad ones (like ones complaining about boat ownership in the Nation’s Newspaper).

Hint: Invariably, a person’s LinkedIn page ends up being the highest result (or way up there). My new advice (and part of last week’s assignment): Create a good LinkedIn page for yourself. The best way to decrease the impact of negative information online is to lower that information in the google search results.

If LinkedIn has a fast track to the top of the list, create a LinkedIn page that is so robust with information (name, biography, practice areas, contact information) that a potential client or employer never clicks on your Myspace page from 2007 (an actual top result for one of the students).

I’m two classes in, and, so far, it’s been extremely rewarding and extremely hard work. Hug a teacher, guys, they’re the real heroes.

Side-note: I’ll be back with the law blogging soon–there have been lots of fun new opinions issued.

The Law is Back! (and pretty much the same as it ever was)

Remember, back in the spring of 2020, when we embraced all the radical changes to the way we practiced law?

All across the country, law firms were closing their offices, sending the staff to work from home, and figuring out how to practice using a laptop, a phone, and really strong wi-fi. No more 4-hour dockets, just to announce an agreed order. Instead, we were doing hearings (and trials!) by Zoom, sitting at hot desks (or in our front bedroom), and figuring out ways to use technology to speed up the legal process for clients.

But lawyers, as a group, aren’t always looking for ways to innovate and “speed up” the legal process. This is an industry where “they way things have always been done” sets a direct course for the ways things will be done.

And so, sure, those early pandemic puff pieces about all the law firm Zoom happy hours made for great fodder in the local business journal in July 2020, but this is July 2021, and it’s time for attorneys and staff to get back to the office. Lawyers are logging off of Zoom and dusting off those old suits. The two hour drive to Court to make a five minute announcement is back.

I love this quote because it’s so true: We are discarding so many of our advances from the past year–things that made perfect sense and saved so much time and legal fees for clients–only to go back “to the way law was practiced when people rode horses to court.”

Why? National legal writer David Lat writes about this in his column about the “Five-Day Office Week.” Lat cites several factors, not the least of which is the sunk cost of long term leases and other hard costs built into the typical law firm. If the firm is paying for all that space, why not make people use it? And, yes, the traditional way of doing things is one of those factors.

Because I live and practice law in Nashville, my frustration about reverting back to the old-timey ways is influenced by, frankly, how much of a mess downtown Nashville can be to conduct business in. E-filing in Davidson County Chancery, Circuit, and General Sessions Courts cuts down on 90% of my trips downtown, but, for that 10%, it literally doesn’t matter what time of day you go: Downtown Nashville is a 24-hour madhouse of construction, beer delivery trucks, parties, and congestion.

In the end, common sense and efficiency may not be the deciding factors. If the Judges, the Court Clerks, and the Administrative Office of the Courts want lawyers to practice law in person, lawyers will have no choice. If law firm managing partners want staff, associates, and partners to physically come downtown, that’s what they’ll do (unless it results in a talent exodus, as predicted by David Lat).

If you want an early clue on where this is heading, though, look at the law firm screenshots showing their recent Zoom meetings and happy hours. In those, the younger associates tend to be working remotely. But, notice the older lawyers’ pictures. They’re generally wearing ties and doing the Zoom calls from their law firm offices.

My take-away? The five day work week is already back. They just haven’t sent you the memo yet.

Welcome to Nashville: Property Developers, Bachelorettes, and National Law Firms

The Nashville Post ran a story on Tuesday about the “shifts in the local legal market” and all these national law firms moving to town and scooping up lawyers to create local offices.

It’s a topic that local lawyers have been talking about for a few years, generally in the form of complaints about the out-of-towners coming in, planting a flag (albeit a very fancy flag), and changing the local market in ways that don’t necessarily change it for the better.

And, yes, I fully acknowledge that this is, basically, the “lawyer” equivalent of when long-timer Nashvillians complain about the people from California moving to their neighborhood and running up the home prices.

Last fall, I had a commercial real estate matter with one of these new law firms. The lawyer I dealt with was based out of Phoenix (but, weirdly, always called me from a Miami area code). It was a small deal, but also the most difficult project I worked on last year. Literally, every thing that could be argued about was argued about. To this day, if you are calling from the 305, you are getting my voice-mail (sorry, J-Lo).

For good or bad, it was definitely a different experience, and I worry whether this is what the next 10 years looks like.

I know I sound like those traditionalist lawyers who refuse to acknowledge change and who, last year, probably refused to do Zoom hearings or, years ago, refused to use e-mails.

But, it is going to change the local legal profession.

Lawyers at mega-firms have to bill more to pay for those mega-offices (both in Nashville, but also in NYC, LA, and all of those other “national” cities) and the mega-salaries being offered. More issues get nit-picked, more calls get scheduled, and, slowly, the way you do a deal in Nashville feels more like how you do it in NYC, Chicago, or whatever other of the 20 cities the lawyer you’re dealing with is based out of.

In the end, you have to wonder whether this results in more costs to the client and, if it does, is it worth it? (And, disclaimer, if a huge law firm wants to buy my firm, I will instantly delete this post.)

I had drinks with a couple of local lawyers from other firms a few weeks ago. We talked about office space (still expensive!), some local gossip, and these issues. (Recap: Many of our well-respected-lawyer-friends work at these firms; they are awesome and do good work; we’re just jealous; who is next, etc.)

In the end, one of the other lawyers wrapped it all up with a sly grin: Sure, it’s going to change the Nashville legal market, but there’s a silver-lining. Over the next 3-5 years, it’s going to artificially raise the standard hourly rate for legal work by 33%to 50% for all of us. (And, sure, this was said as a joke, but also as a statement of fact. This is a very good prediction.)

If you’ve lived in Nashville more than 5 years, you’ve heard complaints just like what I’ve said in this post. You’ve also heard the typical response, which points out that the complaining neighbor’s own property value has sky-rocketed due to the hot market. Same goes for lawyers.

We live in interesting times in Nashville.

Legal Tech, but for lawyers who miss the camaraderie of docket calls

Last week, I had to go to the Davidson County Courthouse to file some garnishment pleadings. With the adoption of e-filing and suspension of in-person court proceedings, filing garnishments is really the only reason I set foot in the building.

Once upon a time–well, about a year ago–I’d spend nearly every Friday morning there, on the fourth floor, checking in on all of the Chancery Court dockets.

Some days, I’d have a case in every courtroom, carefully timing my arrivals so that I could cover all four. On other days, I might just have one case, but I’d linger and roam the halls to see who was there and what cases they had. It was a great way to catch up with other lawyers, talk about our cases, watch interesting hearings, observe how the judges handled issues, and, really, just stay connected to what was going on (i.e. gossip).

But, last week, it was so strange, to be back in that building and it all be so quiet.

Continue reading “Legal Tech, but for lawyers who miss the camaraderie of docket calls”

341 Stories: Lawyer Compensation Week, the modern business obituaries

Welcome to January 21, 2021, the first full day of the Joe Biden administration. It’s also an interesting time for law firms…

Most law firms announce compensation plans this week. The first week of the year is generally spent winding down last year’s financials. The following week is spent distributing bonuses.

This third week, though, may be the most important. It’s when the new year’s salaries are announced. Associates and partners alike sharpen their advocacy skills, to explain away last year’s billables and to demonstrate how this coming year will be the biggest one yet. And, of course, that they deserve a big raise.

If you’re a lawyer in a “discretionary” system (i.e. you advocate to a “compensation committee” for a higher salary), you have limited arguments available. In fact, the presentations generally focus on two metrics: (1) I promise to bill more hours; and/or (2) I am raising my billable rate.

Neither of these are particularly good outcomes for clients.

Unless there was some external factor that limited hours (illness, leave of absence, COVID), where can a lawyer find 100-200 more billable hours in 2021? Is the lawyer simply going to work harder? Maybe. In other cases, the lawyer will just pad their time and that letter that took a “0.3” in 2020 now becomes a “0.5” letter.

And, sure, inflation or more experience can justify an increase in an hourly rate, but is the increase really based on that, or has the lawyer just figured out that a $15 increase multiplied by 1,800 hours equals $27,000 more in profit?

When a rate increase is based only on a new calendar year, it can lead to unjustified results.

Law firm leadership has no incentive to push back on these issues. More hours and higher rates mean more money to them too. In short, the fox is in charge of making sure the barn door is locked.

All I’m saying is, clients, watch your bills next month.

Despite the pandemic and overall concerns about the economy, legal rates are going up. In March, we all talked about how commercial real estate, transactions, and law firm profits were dead. But, locally, that hasn’t been the case.

In general, law firm hourly rates are rising. The pessimist would say that law firms are increasing hourly rates to offset the reduction in actual hours billed. The optimist would say that the commercial economy is as strong as it ever was and that rising rates reflect the market.

Get your insolvency news from McLemore Auctions. I love getting the weekly emails from McLemore Auctions that show all the cool stuff being auctioned, usually via a going-out-business liquidation. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes I made during the pandemic was to show my children the website, which has resulted in a few really strange family purchases.

A few weeks ago, I noted the concept of “funeral by auction” after seeing how frequently the fixtures and assets of many Nashville restaurants end up being sold on the McLemore site. In fact, based on my review of today’s Nashville Post, it seems like the McLemore website may be the earliest public notice that some local businesses have closed.

And, yes, it really stinks to be shopping for deals on gaming chairs, and you see the cafe where you proposed to your wife being sold off, piece by piece.

Remember to shop local. I cringe when I see a local restaurant on the McLemore website. It’s often because I hate to see a small business owner give up, and I feel a little guilty thinking about the last time I spent my money at that local business.

This restaurant closure really hurt. Yesterday, the Nashville Post reported that Woolworths on Fifth was closing. Woolworths was a beautiful restoration of the historic lunch counter where many brave African American students and leaders took a stand to demand equality in our city.

I frequently took guests there for lunches over the years, and I was always proud to share that history. I also worry what’s next and whether the future operators will respect the history of the site.

Law Students: Law School Grades Will Not Define Your Career

Over the long New Years holiday, I found my law school’s “Lawyers of the Future” picture book in a box while cleaning out my basement.

This was a booklet all University of Tennessee College of Law students were given at the start of a school year, with pictures and biographies of all the law students.

My plan had been to throw all of this stuff away, but I just couldn’t. Instead, I strolled down memory lane, looking at all the faces of the people who I’d assumed would be part of my professional life forever, as opposing counsel, judges, and law partners.

Twenty years ago, though, I looked at those faces with less sentimentality. Back then, I looked at those people and their prestigious backgrounds, mainly, as competition. Competition for grades. For law review. Moot Court. Summer Jobs. Clerkships. Associate positions.

Lawyers, do you remember how much you agonized over your first semester 1L law school grades? I mean, it felt like everything in your life depended on Criminal Law, Contracts, Civil Procedure, Legal Writing, and Torts.

Law school grades just absolutely consumed our lives.

Continue reading “Law Students: Law School Grades Will Not Define Your Career”

341 Stories: PPP Money for local firms, Billable Hours, and the Tweet that Shut the Birch Building Down

Some people have told me that 2020 was a strange year to start my own law firm, and I tell them that I wished I’d done it sooner. Or, at the very least, while there was some Paycheck Protection Program money available…

Law Firm Financial Planning during COVID. This Nashville Business Journal story, The 20 Nashville law firms with the largest PPP loans, reported that local law firms received more than $48.8 million in COVID related loans.

I’ll steer clear of the optics of the city’s largest and most prestigious firms getting such large payouts. I mean, c’mon, it’s free-ish money and complicated paperwork. That’s sort of a lawyer’s super bowl, right?

All kidding aside, I am confident that all these law firms also instituted financial austerity measures, hiring freezes, and other cost-saving measures to account for the new economic reality and, further, many plan to return most, if not all, of the funds.

And it isn’t just Nashville firms dealing with all this. These are questions law firms all over the country are getting.

To the critics, I guess I’d remind them that law firms are businesses too, with actual employees and vendors and landlords. The fact that these are “big” law firms doesn’t mean that they don’t need financial assistance any less than a small or solo shop.

But, yes, it’s a very fine line to walk, especially with the @washingtonpost tweeting about how “More Americans are shoplifting food as aid runs out during the pandemic.” Hopefully, these biggest borrowers maxed out the program because they needed the cash to survive, not just because they could get it.

So, what happens next? The American Bar Association reports that cost-cutting measures drastically mitigated the impact of COVID on law firms’ profits. In short, it hasn’t been as bad for some firms or the smart financial decisions made in early 2021 are paying off.

And, per today’s news, Boies Schiller Flexner (the big New York firm that received $10MM in PPP funds) announced it was offering a $20,0000 “welcome” bonus for new associates.

Similarly, in today’s Nashville Post, I’m seeing that one of our local big firms at the top of the PPP list announced a bevy of new lawyer hires. So, maybe things are turning around, and the next story will be about how firms are paying it back.

Continue reading “341 Stories: PPP Money for local firms, Billable Hours, and the Tweet that Shut the Birch Building Down”

Tennessee Courts embrace Google Maps, AG sues Apple, and other technology updates

Some quick hits on this quiet Wednesday before Thanksgiving…

Tennessee Court of Appeals takes judicial notice of Google Maps. Yesterday, the Tennessee Court of Appeals expressly approved a trial court’s taking “judicial notice” of Google Maps to prove distance in trial proceedings.

(Note: Judicial notice is an evidentiary concept that means, basically, when a fact that is so well known and accepted that the court to accept the evidence as true without a full demonstration of proof of the underlying facts.)

The Court wrote: “Google Maps reflects the efforts by Google employees to provide an accurate representation of geography. The company’s business incentive to produce accurate maps is obvious. Furthermore, it is not as though Google Maps is a dubious new novelty. Google Maps has been relied upon by courts across jurisdictions for a number of years now, to say nothing of the general population.” The Total Garage Store, LLC v. Nicholas C. Moody, 2020 WL 6892012, at *11 (Tenn.Ct.App., 2020).

Some people claim that Tennessee Courts are, generally, reluctant to embrace new technology. Reasonable minds can differ, but this shows that courts will embrace technology when it makes obvious common sense.

It also doesn’t hurt that the opinion originated from one of the State’s “younger” and tech-savvy Chancellors…

Now, how are we doing with Zoom hearings?

I remain a little torn on this, and I’ll say that it depends on the Judge. With an active, engaged judge, you get 100% of the same focus, attention, and competency via a telephonic or video hearing. I’ll do a hearing via Zoom with those judges every time.

But, with a judge who is checked out and not paying attention, it’s easier for that judge to coast through, and it’s harder to get their focus and attention when you’re not personally in the same room. More judges than you’d think fall into this category.

Like so many other things in the law, the judge’s demeanor and interest (in the case, in the law, in where the lawyer is from, etc.) are the ultimate wild-card as to whether a client is going to get justice.

Tennessee sues Apple, Inc. over unfair and misleading information about iPhone updates and battery life. Last Friday, the Tennessee Attorney General filed a Complaint against Apple, Inc., alleging a violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act over the iPhone’s “unexpected shutdowns” and “throttling” issues occurring in 2016 and 2017.

From the Complaint, it’s unclear how many Tennessee users are impacted and how much in damages are being sought. The full Complaint can be found here:

You’ll note that the final line of the Complaint contains a reference to “Ethicon’s unlawful trade practices,” which suggests that Attorney Generals are just like the rest of us, when it comes to recycling form pleadings.

Are lawyers more effective working from home?

Lots of parents (especially mothers) have talked about the struggle to effectively practice law from home with kids in the house. In my house, I spend the five minutes before a call or a Zoom hearing telling, bribing, begging my children to be quiet, stay in their room, etc.

But, who knew that the real time-wasters were our law partners?

If this report is to be believed, maybe the “heightened productivity” lawyers enjoy at home results from an unhealthy lack of separation between work and home…