Listen to the Judges

One of the benefits of practicing law for nearly two decades is that, by this time, I know the judges. I’ve either appeared in front of them dozens of times or, just as likely, I know them personally after spending years dealing with them when they were just regular lawyers.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that, even with 20 years of experience, you don’t have to give the judge respect, just because you’re so familiar with them. It means that you come to realize that judges are people too, and they’re subject to the same frustrations, flaws, and distractions that all lawyers are.

In the past two weeks, I’ve spent time with 3 different judges in social settings, and here’s some wisdom that I’ve picked up.

Stop it with the discovery disputes. They hate them, and two of the judges said “I wanted to tell them to be adults and just figure it out.” That’s easier said than done, especially when it’s the other side who is being the jerk. I guess the take-away is, unless it’s really bad, try really hard to get it resolved and, if you do have to court, make it clear how hard you tried to get it resolved.

Get to the point. Another frustration is that the parties want to push all their facts and legal citations toward the bench, and essentially ask the judge to figure it out. And, yes, that’s the judge’s job. But, if you can make it as clear and easy as possible, you should.

And, a big part of that is presenting clear, straight-forward briefs, without any extraneous legalese.

I really like this article, “How to Write So Judges Will Like You.” “Life on the other side of the gavel is busy, filled with hearings and trials and conferences and five hundred lawyers who all think their motion is an emergency that deserves immediate and undivided attention….get to the point quickly.” 

The next time you’re writing a big brief, before you start, take a moment and read that article. We practice law in a time when heretofors, comes nows, and by and through undersigned counsels just aren’t expected by modern judicial readers. It’s a waste of space and time, when a judge needs you to get to the point, say what’s really going on, and why you’re right.

Stop it with the fidgeting and listen. One judge shared a story about presiding in a small courtroom, about 7 feet away from plaintiff’s counsel before trial. And, as the judge was discussing preliminary pre-trial issues, counsel just couldn’t stop arranging everything. Pens. Post-its. Folders. Files. The judge couldn’t even focus, because it looked like counsel wasn’t listening. And that was irritating.

Now, as all trial lawyers know, that’s a nervous time. You’re rehearsing your opening statement, terrified that you’ve misplaced your exhibits, and worrying about 50 things at once.

That’s a fairly extreme example, but here’s one I see a lot: Lawyers simply can’t stay off their phones, even during their own court proceedings. Sure, sometimes there are emergency e-mails, but, generally, it’s mindless checking of twitter or texts.

I remember, as a young lawyer, some of the older lawyers would set up shop on the back row and open up the newspaper and read it while waiting for their case. Can you imagine that? That’s somebody who isn’t paying any attention–I mean, people used to do that at football games as a show of disrespect to the other team.

Staring at your phone is the modern equivalent. It makes you look unengaged and bored by what’s going on.

So, again, all of this is hearsay, gleaned from conversation here and there. But, keep this in mind the next time you’ve got something coming up in court. These may have been words from your Judge.

341: Bluff City Law, Ep. 3: What’s with all the Ribs?

Last week, I talked about the latest episode of Bluff City Law, the legal drama set in Memphis, my old hometown. I got enough positive feedback to offer my comments about Episode 3, 25 Years to Life. My quick thoughts follow:

They didn’t teach Geography in law school. One of my criticisms last week was that all of the lawyers on the show were Vanderbilt Law graduates. In my experience, this isn’t the case in real life Memphis. I just assumed that it was Hollywood / quasi-Ivy League snobbery, but, after seeing Ep. 3, I wonder if the writers realize that Vanderbilt isn’t actually in Memphis?

In the show, two of the lawyers (who had earlier been established as Vandy grads) represent their former law professor (thus, a Vanderbilt law professor) in an age discrimination case. The episode actually shows them meeting with him, at his Vanderbilt law school office, in Memphis.

As a warning to all you prospective law students who may watch this show and fall in love with Memphis, Vanderbilt is not in Memphis.

Mo much Ribs. Just like episode, lawyers eating ribs at lunch was a plot point this week.

I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years, and I have never seen a lawyer eat a huge plate of ribs for lunch. They are messy–can you imagine all the fingerprint smears you’d get on your pleadings? Plus, it’d be an awful lunch food. You’d want to take a 10 hour nap after that meal.

I have to wonder if the show writers just assume, weirdly, that everybody eats some form of ribs for every meal in Memphis.

Also, pimento cheese and honey? As so many shows set in the South do, Bluff City Law makes reference to all types of southern charm (Jimmy Smits with a southern accent!). But, what makes this show unique is that, in lieu of actual southern traditions, it sometimes just makes them up.

Like when Jimmy Smits and his son were eating “a Memphis tradition” early in the episode. Apparently, this was a pimento cheese and honey, on an english muffin. What?

With all the eccentrically precious southern things out there, how on earth did they decide to present this to the world?

On to the legal dramas. It’s still jarring to see cases commenced in one scene and, then, basically, being tried two scenes later.

Law students: This is not how any of the practice of law works. I filed a law suit for $20,000 a few months ago, and I’m not sure if it will get tried in 2020 or 2021.

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”

New Court of Appeals Opinion provides good statement of doctrine of Res Judicata

As lawyers, the business model is fairly simple: We sell our time, multiplied by our hourly rates.

This creates a huge disconnect between clients and lawyers. All clients want their matters resolved in their favor, but also quickly, smartly, and cost-efficiently (that’s a nice way to say for as little legal fees as possible). On the other hand, the lawyer-industrial-complex wants lawyers to ponder, research, litigate, bill, examine, depose, etc. (i.e. for as many billable hours as possible).

First off, run away from lawyers like that.

Second, if you’re a lawyer and want clients to be happy, you should read this new Tennessee Court of Appeals opinion, which discusses the concept of res judicata. That’s a doctrine that allows parties to avoid unnecessary, duplicative litigation, when the issues have already been decided by a court.

The facts aren’t that important, so I’ll just focus on the legal discussion.  The Court wrote: Continue reading “New Court of Appeals Opinion provides good statement of doctrine of Res Judicata”

341 Meeting: Suing Your Own Employees; Public Schools; Urgent Political Spam

Hassling Poor People, Who Happen to be Your Own Employees. When the economy hit rock bottom in 2009 or so, all kinds of doctors, lawyers, private schools hired me to collect their debts. Many had never dealt with bad debt before, or the awful circumstances that lead to defaults. They just saw the bad debt and thought it could be an income stream for them. It was an eye-opening lesson for many.

Since then, I occasionally have had to tell some of my clients that some debt isn’t worth collecting, whether it’s a low return on investment or, frankly, just bad PR.

This story out of Memphis reminds me of that.   NPR reports that Methodist Le Bonheur Hospital is making national news for its practice of suing its own employees when they can’t pay their medical bills, and then using some pretty aggressive collection tactics when they can’t pay the judgments rendered in the lawsuits.

…what is striking at Methodist, the largest hospital system in the Memphis region, is how many of the patients being sued are the hospital’s own employees. Hardly a week goes by in which Methodist workers aren’t on the court docket fighting debt lawsuits filed by their employer.

That’s a really bad look, especially in a climate where employers are criticized for not paying a living wage and also terrible health insurance benefits. Continue reading “341 Meeting: Suing Your Own Employees; Public Schools; Urgent Political Spam”

341 Meeting Recap: Thoughts on Hell’s Half Acre; Beware When Judges are too Nice; Karaoke Happy Hour; Sue the Collector.com

Welcome to the “341 Meeting,” at 3:41pm (well, today, I’m posting at 11:41, just to get it out here).

This will be a regular series of posts (on Thursdays, at 3:41) that will be longer, but made up of smaller, semi-relevant items about local legal issues. A lot of you (about 1,000) “subscribe” here and get an e-mail every time I post an update, and this is a way to get mini-blasts out (without clogging up your inboxes with a bunch of smaller posts). 

But, first, a video from Judge George Paine of the United States Bankruptcy Courts for the Middle District of Tennessee…. only those of you who have attended a Nashville 341 Meeting will get that…nevermind…

Continue reading “341 Meeting Recap: Thoughts on Hell’s Half Acre; Beware When Judges are too Nice; Karaoke Happy Hour; Sue the Collector.com”

Want to be a better lawyer? Attend a Court of Appeals argument.

I recently had two oral arguments set on the same day in the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which was a fairly stressful experience. But, by the time the second docket came around, I had a really good idea of where to go, where to sit, how the dockets would start, who would say what, and all the little details.

Honestly, I was a little irritated at myself for not attending an oral argument docket a few months before, just for the experience and insight.

So, here’s my advice to you: If you’ve got a appeal pending and haven’t Continue reading “Want to be a better lawyer? Attend a Court of Appeals argument.”