Davidson County Chancery Court Case Information Now Online

For a few years now, all of the Davidson County Circuit Court’s records have been online at the Davidson County Caselink (subs. req’d).

Now, the case records of the Davidson County Chancery Court are online on the Court’s website. Although it doesn’t provide scanned copies of pleadings (yet), the website contains party information and the dates of relevant pleadings.

As the world moves entirely online, it’s great to see this move from Chancery Court. Will electronic filing of Court pleadings be next?

Speaking Engagement: 5th Annual Law Conference for Tennessee Practitioners

The Tennessee Attorneys Memo is hosting the 5th Annual Law Conference for Tennessee Practitioners in Nashville on November 3 and 4, 2011.

They advertise it as “[f]eaturing an all-star cast of prominent Tennessee judges and attorneys and 15 hours of CLE credit, including 3 hours of DUAL credit.”

They’ve invited me to speak on issues surrounding Tennessee collections and Judgment Enforcement, and I always agree to anything where I can be described as an “all-star.”

I’ve spoken at this conference before, and it’s a good event, with tons of materials and smart presenters. I’m planning on jazzing up this year’s creditors rights presentation with a discussion of social media law and the interplay between social media and the Fair Debt Collections Practices act in collections.

You can sign up for one or both days here. I’ll be speaking on Friday.

Using Social Media to Collect Debt: If You Can Navigate the Ethical Minefield, It Works 5% of the Time

A new trend in lawyer Continuing Legal Education are seminars advocating use of Social Media to Collect Debts. The seminars either advocate for social media as the tool of the future or caution that it is an ethical trap for debt collectors.

It’s a hot issue in debt collection. NPR did a story on this last year, and the Federal Trade Commission recently conducted a “Debt Collection 2.0” workshop on the issue. Frankly, it’s such a new issue that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) doesn’t exactly fit, but it’s close.

It’s definitely a trap for the debt collector, especially given that the FDCPA seems to apply to all communications, regardless of whether it’s a letter, e-mail, or friend request. Does a creditor have to identify themselves as a debt collector under the Act in an initial friend request? Does the friend request (i.e. an “initial communication”) have to be followed by the Act’s required debt validation warning (15 USC 1692g)?

I have no idea. My philosophy is, when in doubt about ethics, choose the safe route. Here, the safe route is avoiding affirmative contact but, if the profile is public, then by all means use whatever you can publicly find.

Just yesterday, I was trying to locate a defendant who had disappeared–all of the searches kept going back to his old house, where the residents swore he no longer lived. But, I found an online profile for him on Map My Walk, a site that allows people to track their running and walking routes. You can guess the rest: everyday, his walks started and ended at the address that I had, providing confirmation of his address (and what time he was home in the afternoon).

At one time, I saw social media as the future of debt collection, especially in the early days of social networking sites (Myspace, Friendster, early Facebook), when people didn’t think twice about privacy settings. Now, people are more savvy about online privacy. (And it’s not necessarily to dodge debt collections–it’s more likely to avoid the boss seeing your party photos.)

Even though people can post pictures of their new car or brag about their promotion at work, most people know better. But, not everybody knows better–and, if they are going to put it online where anybody can see, they can’t complain when a debt collector finds it.

My final take? It’s not the wave of the future in collections. It’s a box to check in the process, but not the solution to finding debtors or their assets.

Proposed Tennessee Legislation Seeks to Alter Liability for Attorney’s Fees and Expenses in Litigation

An interesting bill, House Bill 1156, Senate Bill 651, is making its way through the Tennessee legislature, which will radically shift the risks of litigation by awarding litigation costs and “reasonable and necessary attorney fees” to the prevailing party, even where no agreement to pay such fees exists between the parties. Today, the legislation passed in the House Judiciary Subcommittee–unanimously.

This would be very different than the current law. As it is now, a party cannot recover attorney fees in Tennessee litigation unless they have a written agreement granting the right to recover those fees or unless they sue under a statute that expressly provides those rights.  Absent either of those, a creditor can’t recover attorney fees.

This bill, which would be the new Tenn. Code Ann. 20-12-119, awards “reasonable and necessary attorneys fees” (as well as other litigation expenses) in civil cases to the “prevailing party” (as long as the party did not hire its counsel on a contingency fee basis). The text says that the “judge shall” grant this recovery–it’s not discretionary.

The ability to recover attorneys fees is a big deal in litigation, as the potential of paying for the other side’s lawyers is often a detriment to prolonged fights. On creditor actions, especially smaller claims, creditors often base their decision on whether to sue on whether they can recover their expenses. Without that, the cost of suing on debts and small claims doesn’t make sense.

This proposed legislation is certainly a drastic change to Tennessee practice and, as much as I think it would benefit creditors in general, I question the fairness of the law. Frankly, litigation isn’t always “Right Versus Wrong,” and matters sometimes get tried not because of stubbornness, but because there is no clear answer to an issue. To award fees in such disputes without any such agreement seems unduly punitive.

Ebay For Lawyers and Other Alternative Fee Arrangements

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Sphoonkle, a new ebay-like website that lets clients post their legal issues and solicit bids from lawyers to perform those services. The client would, presumably, pick the bidder with relevant experience and, most likely, the lowest bid.

As you can guess, the white-starched legal world is up in arms about the site, saying that blind competitive bidding on legal work degrades the profession.

While I wouldn’t stake the future of my practice on something called “Sphoonkle,” I like the effort to connect clients with lawyers in an innovative way. That’s half the reason I have this blog, to break down some of the traditional barriers between “the Law” and “the Client.”

Alternative fee arrangements are something that any forward-thinking lawyer has to embrace, especially in this economy. Right now, my firm is experimenting with flat rate, contingency, and blended rates when reasonable.

That having been said, I think Sphoonkle and the process behind it is flawed. Competitive bidding creates the presumption that the lowest bid is the best choice, but, with professional services, so much more goes into the work (experience, location, staffing, etc.).

Plus, as with many things, you get what you pay for. Sure, some lawyer who you’ve never met may propose to do your Will for $100, but there’s always risk in going cheap.  You don’t want to sacrifice quality for savings, and that’s a fine line to walk when comparing lawyer quotes, whether you’re on ebay or in downtown Nashville.

My advice? Be careful, but always focus on quality first. But, don’t be afraid to ask about cost, and have a frank conversation about estimated costs on the front end.

Creditor Rights Tip for Williamson County Court: Go to Merridee’s Breadbasket

If you do creditor rights legal work, you’ll end up in of court a lot, often in different courts in different counties.

As a result, you start to learn your “favorites,” whether it be a favorite judge, a favorite car ride, or, most common, a favorite lunch or breakfast place.

Here’s my Williamson County favorite: Merridee’s Breadbasket in Franklin. For 9am dockets, you can go over there for coffee, pastries, or a real breakfast. For the lunchtime foreclosures, you can get a great sandwich combo deal, which includes a giant piece of pie.

No, this isn’t an advertisement. But, yes, I was in Williamson County Chancery Court yesterday morning, and, yes, my day started over at Merridee’s.

Speaking at 2010 Tennessee Real Estate Law Conference, by M. Lee Smith Publishers

On December 9 and 10, 2010, I’ll be speaking at the 2010 Tennessee Real Estate Law Conference, presented by M. Lee Smith Publishers.

This group always puts on great seminars on relevant topics, and the faculty looks really strong.

My portion is going to be presented on December 10, at 2pm to 3pm, titled “A Primer on Real Estate Liens.” Here’s the full agenda.