Get Your Law School Applications In: Welcome to the Profession

It’s that time of year when English, Philosophy, and History majors start wondering what they’re going to do after graduation.

If you’re thinking about going to law school, you’re welcome to read the entirety of this New York Times article, The Lawyer, the Addict,  on substance abuse in the legal profession.

Or, you can read just this part, under the heading, “Rewarded for Being Hostile.” After noting that lawyers “have the highest rate of depression of any occupational group in the country,” there’s this:

Yes, there are other stressful professions…Being a surgeon is stressful, for instance — but not in the same way. It would be like having another surgeon across the table from you trying to undo your operation. In law, you are financially rewarded for being hostile.

I love that image. I mean, I also hate it, as a lawyer who has to deal with lawyers all day long.

The law is a strange profession. Look at the ads in the Yellow Pages, and there they are: “Hostile”; “Aggressive”; “Take No Prisoners”; “Bulldog.”

Aggressive

Here is a law firm using, literally, an angry gorilla to advertise their services. (I found another one with a lawyer holding a ninja sword, but I didn’t post that.)

This isn’t the part where I say that I hate my job, but it’s a note that the legal profession is a strange one.

The next ten years will be interesting, as more of the “old school” attorneys retire and make way for the millennials, who, if we believe the news stories, value quality of life and collaboration. Maybe, we’ll see a decrease in this “law is war” mentality.

But, with a generation raised on social media snark, I wonder whether we’ll see a continuation of the broader cultural shift to a lack of civil behavior, particularly with the wide-spread use of e-mail communication as the primary means of lawyer to lawyer communication and long-distance / remote practice.

What I’m saying, in the end, is: Welcome to the Jungle, new lawyers.

 

I Deactivated Facebook, and I Miss it for Business Reasons (Sort of)

I rolled my eyes, last month, when I saw a few of the New Year’s resolution posts on–and about–social media.

“Goodbye all. I’m deleting [insert name of social media service]. I want to engage more with friends in real life, [etc.]”

But, here I am, a month later, and I’m one of those people. I’ve deleted my Facebook account.

I’ve taught seminars on the pitfalls of social media in family law cases.  (Spoiler alert: If you were born after 1985 and are getting a divorce, it’s already too late for you.)

I’ve taught seminars on the value of social media for lawyer marketing. (Spoiler alert: People don’t want to connect with, hear from, or see pictures of their lawyer on Facebook.)

I won’t go into all the details, but, frankly, I’m sick of all the noise, and, by “noise,” I mean all the ads, and also all the likes, comments, and posts of “friends of friends” (which, in non-Facebook speak, translates to “people who I don’t know”). Simply put, there isn’t a point to any of it.

So, here I am, 24 hours into this grand experiment. And I miss Facebook a little…for business reasons.

I got a call from a potential client, and, using his phone number, I instinctively went to Facebook to search his cell number and look at his Facebook page (i.e. my “Is this a Crazy Person” test).

And, yes, begrudgingly, I’ll admit that Facebook has been occasionally useful for work purposes.

So, here I am, a day into the experiment, and the better play is to delete the App. Or just deactivate Facebook.

 

To Recover Attorney’s Fees in Tennessee, You Have to Be Express and Exact in Your Contract

We’ve talked about this before: Tennessee is a great, creditor-friendly state, but, if you want to recover your attorney’s fees in Tennessee, you’d better have some very specific language in your contract.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals filed an opinion last week as a reminder, at Nyrstar Tennessee Mines-Strawberry Plains, LLC v. Claiborne Hauing, LLC, Tenn. Ct. Apps, No. E2017-00155-COA-R3-CV.

Here is the contract provision the Court considered:

The Customer must pay Nyrstar all costs and expenses incurred by Nyrstar in connection with enforcing its rights against the Customer under an Agreement including legal expenses and other costs incurred in recovering monies owed by the Customer to Nyrstar.

By my read, “all costs and expenses,” along with “including legal expenses,” should be good enough.

The Nystar Court disagreed. That text does not say “including reasonable attorney’s fees.”

As a result, “The provision at issue does not specifically or expressly create a right to ‘fees,’ ‘attorney’s fees,’ or ‘reasonable attorney’s fees.'” Further, ““the term ‘expenses,’ without more, . . . does not include an award of attorney fees.”

As a result, “[t]he language in the contract before us is not sufficient for Nyrstar to be  entitled to recover its attorney’s fees. The provision at issue does not expressly or  specifically create a right for Nyrstar to recover its attorney’s fees.”

So, if you want to recover attorney’s fees in Tennessee, you’d better say exactly that in your contract–that the prevailing party shall be entitled to recover its attorney’s fees.

The Ethical Implications of How You Obtain Evidence: Avoid “Pretexting” (And Also Everything Else Harvey Weinstein Did)

This week, the New Yorker ran an article, “Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies,” which talked about the ways that the embattled movie producer investigated the women making sexual harassment claims against him.

One of the stranger aspects, however, is that he used his lawyer, David Boies, to employ these investigators, who later pretended to be victims in order to gain the trust and sympathy of the targeted victims.

Sure, we can be appalled at the extreme measures employed, but, when his lawyer puts his signature on any aspect of it, it becomes even more troubling.

This blog isn’t about Harvey Weinstein-level counter-intelligence, but this type of thing occasionally comes up in real life law practice, particularly in domestic relations.

This is referred to as “pretexting,” and it involves some sort of ruse or deception to obtain information. Frequently, it will entail the creation of a fake social media accounts to “friend” or communicate with a witness or opposing party.

This is unethical behavior and, in Tennessee, violates the Rules of Professional Responsibility. Rule 4.1 provides that “a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person.” In addition to lawyer professional disciplinary proceedings, such actions can result in criminal or civil liability under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and other mail/wire fraud statutes.

But, let’s be clear: Information that a person publicly posts online is perfectly ripe for the taking and use, including public posts and pictures. Similarly, information that a person privately posts but which a party has knowing permission to access can also be used.

The key is that a lawyer–or an investigator working for the lawyer–should not use deception or lie in order to obtain that access.  But, short of that, if it’s out there and it’s useful, download it, copy it, save it, and use it.

As an aside–and totally appropriate for this topic–I’ll be presenting the topic “Ethical Issues: Using Social Media/The Evidentiary Role of Technology,” at the Family Law Conference for Tennessee Practitioners in December 2017.

 

 

Davidson County Circuit Court Judges Enter Order to Review Writs of Restitution in Detainer Appeals

I posted a few years ago that a losing defendant in a detainer action isn’t required to post the “possessory” bond provided at Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-130(b)(2) in order to have a valid appeal.

While courts were split for years on this issue, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s December 2013 decision in Johnson v. Hopkins answered this question for good.  In short, the defendant who fails to post the possessory bond still has a valid appeal, but the defendant has no protection from a Writ of Restitution while the appeal is pending.

In Davidson County Circuit Court, if a general sessions detainer judgment was appealed without that bond, the Court Clerk’s website actually had a form that would allow the landlord to immediately issue a Writ, no matter if the appeal was still under consideration.

And, as you might suspect, that’s a big deal, since what’s the point of fighting the landlord’s eviction if you’re not going to stay in the premises? My guess is that it wasn’t a matter of strategy, but, instead, an issue of ignorance by the litigants about how detainer appeals work.

I also know, from my experience, that it’s a quite a surprise when an appealing defendant discovers this mistake…which used to happen when the Sheriff showed up to execute on the Writ with movers in tow.

Potentially in response to this, the Judges of the Circuit Court recently entered an Order entered on February 24, 2017 that, for any Writ of Restitution filed with the Clerk while an appeal is pending, the Clerk must set a review hearing on the Writ before issuance of the Writ.

This is an interesting practice, that’s not based on the statutes or rules of procedure. I’d bet it’s based on the Judges getting sick of dealing with the frantic motions to quash filed after the Sheriff shows up at somebody’s door. All in all, it’s a good, practical procedure.

 

 

 

Grabbing a Tiger by the Tail: How the Taylor Swift Litigation Shows that Some Lawsuits Aren’t Worth Filing

Sometimes, it makes sense not to file a lawsuit, even if you have good claims, where there’s no easy victory and the lawsuit will ultimately cost more in time, legal fees, and distraction than you’ll ever recover.

We’re seeing a possible example of this with the lawsuit filed by Radio DJ David Mueller against Taylor Swift.  Mueller alleges that a false accusation by Taylor Swift to his bosses led to him getting fired. In the lawsuit, Taylor Swift quickly filed a counterclaim, alleging assault and battery while they posed for this picture.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this plaintiff has grabbed a tiger by the tail.

By filing this lawsuit, he stepped into near-certain litigation involving a motivated, deep-pocketed opponent who will put up a relentless fight in a lawsuit with no clear facts. In this case, there’s no easy victory and, worse, there’s no easy middle ground.  It’s his word versus her word, a fight over principle, and litigation like that is always expensive and impossible to settle without a jury (or judge) deciding who is right.

I recently had a very good client come to my office, with a new lawsuit for me to pursue. The facts were messy, with emotional claims on each side, with no clear facts showing either side was clearly right, and with no way to recover the attorneys fees if we won.

In the end, my best advice was to avoid the stress, expense, and distraction of waging this fight over a fairly small amount of money, even though I was confident we’d win in the end. In discussing emotional disputes, one my most respected law partners, Ed Yarbrough, once said, “If the client says it’s all about the principle, then I have no interest.”

Sometimes, the best way to win a fight is to know which ones aren’t worth fighting.

Why I Volunteer at Legal Aid

Last year, I spent all day on a Sunday in the outer reaches of Nashville, building a house for Habitat for Humanity. I don’t know much about building a house, roofing a roof, or using a nail gun. In fact, what I know about nail guns, I learned from a Bruce Willis action movie. Needless to say, I was not having a good time that day.

Even though it felt good to be volunteering and doing good in a general sense, it felt weird to be wasting time and destroying construction supplies on a table saw.

So, on that hot Sunday, I decided to not volunteer at any more construction jobs, and, instead, devote my time in a way that emphasizes my most valuable assets–my legal knowledge.

Since then, I’ve routinely volunteered at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Upper Cumberlands.  I’m lucky to be really busy at work, and so I don’t volunteer as much as I could.

But, Legal Aid makes it easy: They offer free legal aid clinics at various times, days, and locations every month, and the commitment for volunteer lawyers is generally only a few hours at a time.

I know, I know–I’m basically telling you about the easiest, lease time-intensive way to help, but that’s a also good thing. A little bit of help goes so far. They need help staffing these clinics, and, in two hours, a lawyer can help 3-5 people who had been hopelessly lost in the legal system.

So, if you’re reading this blog and I’ve saved you any time researching a legal question, I have one request: Take that time saved and denote your time to your local legal aid clinic.