September 19th, 2019

NY Bar Associations Failing To Lobby for Solos and Small Firms

Eleven years ago I described in this space how one Brooklyn courtroom alone was likely wasting $10,000,000 in legal time, each year. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. But I’ve actually been blogging longer than that.

Our courts are chock full of inefficiency, and the worst hit in this morass may well be the small and solo firms in the day-to-day matter of trying to get routine tasks done. Our bar associations have this odd habit of catering to the Big Law. Small Law, it seems, doesn’t really matter.

And so, on Tuesday when I saw this letter to the editor of the New York Law Journa, which touched on some of the points I made a decade ago, I reached out to its author for permission to re-publish it here, to widen, ever so slightly, the audience.

For the non-lawyers who may be reading there’s a bit of inside baseball going on in this letter. But this gives you the gist of how sexy our practice really is on some days.

Without further ado, I bring you Sid Baumgarten, who has been around the block a few times as a general practitioner with over 40 years of experience: ——-

Regarding your story about “Millenials Skipping Bar Meetings,” I believe the “syndrome” is not limited to a certain age group. The bar associations here in NYC are becoming irrelevant. (Note that the NY County Lawyers Association has sold its building on Vesey Street.)

I am an octogenarian and I serve as vice-chair of the NYCLA committee on Law-Related Education. Our usual attendance at this important committee headed by retired Justice Price is about 6-10 members. Other than those meetings I rarely attend bar association events.

I attribute the decline in attendance to a variety of reasons:

First, I expected these associations to seriously lobby for needed reforms in the judicial system, but they have rarely done so.  On those occasions, it is usually when the fortunes of the “white-shoe law firms” are at stake. There are few, if any, efforts to solve problems for the small firms or solo practitioners.  I have importuned them on a number of occasions to speak out on issues that affect the small firms and solos, to no avail.

In early 2018, federal Judge Jed Rakoff spoke about the high cost of legal services and I wrote to the NY Law Journal that “Judge Rakoff did not mention that the judges themselves, as well as the court rules have made the legal process into a nightmare for lawyers, with particular impact on the small firm or solo.” I addressed a few of those problems.

A) The Preliminary, Status and Compliance Conferences where hours are spent just to fill out a form which then gets rubber-stamped by the judge or court attorney.  Or the judge or court attorney spends a half-hour with one case discussing discovery issues while another 50 lawyers are forced to sit around and wait.  An entire morning spent—and billed to the client—for matters that didn’t need to be before the court in the first place.When I started to practice law most of these issues were resolved by the attorneys themselves.  The lawyers ‘charted the course of litigation.’ In a current case I am handling, there are at least 14 lawyers involved in a personal injury case, most of them representing various defendants.  Compliance conferences were really a waste.  Not once have all the attorneys been able to attend each scheduled date, so it keeps getting adjourned.  Mornings wasted and billed to the client.

B) I have questioned also the matrimonial practice of requiring the parties to be present for each and every court date. Why? Is it necessary for the client to take a day off from work to just stand there while the lawyers consult with the court on routine preliminary matters?  Also, when was it divined that when a matrimonial settlement is reached and the parties have all signed written, notarized agreements, there must now be an allocution—as if they were entering a plea to a felony?

C) Among the many mysteries of our system here in NYC is the time it takes to get a judgment entered.  Where are the bar associations lobbying to give the county clerks sufficient resources to move matters more quickly? An uncontested matrimonial judgment can take months to be “entered.”  I had one in Dutchess County and I had the final judgment in hand the same day it was finalized and signed by the judge!In one of my cases where summary judgment was granted and I submitted a $200,000 Judgment to the county clerk it took more than three months be get it “entered.” A civil court judgment for less than $4,000 also took three months to be entered. In July 2016, I wrote to the president of the New York County Lawyers Association regarding each of the matters set forth above.  No reply.

Second, the bar associations, in addition to taking up the foregoing issues, should be focusing on some other interesting anomalies.  For example, I have volunteered to arbitrate fee disputes pursuant to the court rules and most have involved from a few hours to an entire day. No pay expected!  But why are we not at least offered CLE credits?  When I volunteer for the Empire State Moot Court trials as a judge or scorer, I get a few CLE credits for just a half-day. Those are student competitions; the fee arbitration involves real clients and real lawyers and oft-times substantial sums involved—and the arbitrator gets nothing.

Third,  the bar associations should be furious with the current state of the IAS system which now requires the practitioner to know or read the individual rules of over 200 judges. There should be uniform rules—-period.

More than 40 years ago I served as law secretary (now “court attorney”) to the administrative judge in Queens Supreme Court. At that time, before the IAS system was instituted, we had special term part 1 for contested motions and special term part 2 for ex parte matters.  Most of the motions in special 1 were involved with pre-trial matters, discovery, compliance, etc. and a small number of dispositive motions.  Most were decided in a few days, some in a few weeks and rarely more than that, except for highly technical cases requiring input from the law department.

At that time we saw no need for the “vertical” IAS system, which in retrospect has not improved efficiency or expediency. I now have dispositive motions pending for as long as 13 months in Supreme Court.  Moreover, the IAS judges routinely refer settlement conferences to another judge or referee and also often send the case to another judge for trial.  So much for the “vertical” IAS system!

Finally, I lament the loss of the collegiality among lawyers and judges.  Everyone is so uptight about political correctness and/or being viewed as not “tough enough” by their clients, it has produced an iciness where if you even say hello to your adversary it is viewed as inappropriate.  We used to have lunch with our adversaries and enjoyed each others company and anecdotes without being accused of weakness or worse. That atmosphere has, no doubt, made it less enjoyable to attend bar association functions or to participate in their committees.

There is no time to explore other impacts on attorneys who practice in the state courts, not just the millennials. In my view, litigating in the New York courts has become so frustrating that I know many young attorneys who have given up litigation totally. These are what I think the bar associations should be dealing with every day!

My colleagues, of all ages, often wonder why they keep paying dues to the bar associations.

Sidney Baumgarten is a litigator in New York City and a member of several bar associations. 

 

December 10th, 2018

When you don’t have the facts…

Rudy Giuliani

Most folks are familiar with the old Carl Sandburg quote, “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

There’s much truth to that, because if we have something important to say on facts or law, any competent lawyer will put that up front.

This idea came home to roost on Friday when Rudy Giuliani spoke on behalf of Donald Trump. Or at least he tweeted, which apparently is good enough for legal representation these days.

The tweet came on the heels of Trump claiming he answered the questions of Special Prosecutor Robert Muller “very easily.

But Giuliani went off message as he completely contradicted his client, saying: “Answering those questions was a nightmare. It took him about three weeks to do what would normally take two days.” 

So what to do? Well, this is where the Sandburg quote comes in…notice how this Giuliani tweet is utterly devoid of facts and law on the issue at hand…

Some in the media are distorting my statement that answering the questions was a nightmare. That is because as President he was interrupted so often with critical and more important matters. It illustrates why Mueller should end this now and media should be fair.

Giuliani starts in one place, trying to reconcile his comment with his client’s. But then goes wildly off course, in the space of one measly tweet, and Mr. Law and Order asks for immunity.

Now lawyers see similar stuff all the time in legal arguments. Lawyer 1 says the evidence shows red light, and Lawyer 2 argues that his client’s pants are purple.  

Lawyers aren’t fooled. We know distraction when we see it, and the job of Lawyer 1 is to make sure that the judge sees that Lawyer 2 never addressed the issue. The only thing the purple pants arguing  lawyer did was destroy his own credibility on the next issue, whatever the next issue may be.

Here, the issue was whether Trump was answering the questions and Giuliani simply makes an argument that presidents are busy, so Mueller should stop asking questions.

The nonsense from Giuliani didn’t stop there, however, as he continued with another inane tweet of defense, this time to the campaign finance laws he appears to have broken. The best Giuliani could do was claim that because John Edwards wasn’t convicted for a payment to cover up an affair/child, that Trump is innocent.

It’s as if Giuliani said that because one bank robbery defendant was found not guilty all must be. As if all factual scenarios are the same. Here’s the humdinger of a tweet:

The President is not implicated in campaign finance violations because based on Edwards case and others the payments are not campaign contributions. No responsible prosecutor would premise a criminal case on a questionable interpretation of the law.

Sometimes, the things to look for are not the distortion of facts in a case but the distractions of opposing counsel. Trump does this all the time, of course. You can ask him about campaign contribution violations and he’ll answer something having to do with Hillary Clinton.

But when lawyers do it, it really brings home the point that there’s trouble in the house and the lawyers don’t have the tools to deal with it.

 

May 11th, 2017

Cellino and Barnes Collapses (Updated)

Cellino and Barnes, perhaps New York’s largest personal injury firm, collapsed yesterday. Ross M. Cellino Jr. brought an Order to Show Cause asking why the firm should not be dissolved. The Buffalo based firm –  fueled  by a massive multi-million dollar advertising and marketing budget — expanded in recent years to open offices around New York and now in California.

Cellino’s partner, Stephen Barnes, is scheduled to respond in court on May 19th to the petition for dissolution of the firm. Details of the reason for the collapse will most surely come out in the lawsuit, along with accusations of some kind as between the two.

At stake in the suit are potentially thousands (tens of thousands?) of injured clients, whose cases now face the prospects of chaos, delay and disarray. It could be years before the entanglements of the two are sorted out, as issues involving its very expensive phone number (all 8s), marketing campaign (and jingle) and leases are sorted out while the lawyers jockey over how to manage the clients.

(Not all of its advertising revolved around its hokey jingle.)

The dissolution will also have to deal with potential future business — notwithstanding the disarray — and that such business was generated by the years-long marketing campaign.

Most assuredly, lawyers at the firm are now contacting high-value individual clients in efforts to persuade them to stay at one of the new firms bound to be birthed from the tumult and pandemonium that is likely taking place.

The firm currently has 70+ lawyers listed on its website — not large by BigLaw firms but ginormous in the personal injury field where firms of 1-5 attorneys are most common.

But it isn’t as if those lawyers can simply divvy up the clients — for it is the clients that get to choose the lawyers. If clients do not believe they’ve been treated well with personal attention in the past, they may flee the firm altogether.

Both Cellino and Barnes have a checkered history, notwithstanding their success in building their mega-firm. In 2005 Cellino was suspended from the practice of law for six months while Barnes was censured. (In re Cellino)

The two of them had, in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct, advanced loans to numerous clients. Part of this was having a relative set up a high interest funding company for clients, and then directing clients to that funding company without informing them of the relationship.

Barnes was also cited for ambulance chasing (“Barnes sent a letter to a hospitalized surgical patient and concluded that such conduct was an impermissible solicitation of legal employment in violation of Code of Professional Responsibility.”)

My speculation: There are two main reasons for a law firm to dissolve — money and ego. So the leading contenders are that there are financial problems of some kind lurking in the background, or that Cellino (or Barnes) feels he deserves a bigger piece of the pie for some reason. Time will tell.

This story is one to follow given the inevitable problems that will result in the dissolution of a firm with thousands of clients.
——————-

Update (5/12/17)As per the Buffalo News, the dissolution issues started when Cillino wanted to hire his daughter, a recent SUNY Buffalo law grad, and Barnes said no:

Cellino went to Stephen E. Barnes in 2015, asking that the law firm hire his daughter, Jeanna Cellino, a cum laude graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Law, one of the sources said.

“Steve said absolutely not,” the source said, adding that the disagreement became a major bone of contention between the firm’s two founders.

In addition, there are apparently issues over finances (no great surprise):

Some disputes over finances in the law firm also are part of the disagreement that prompted Cellino to file a lawsuit against his own law firm this week, seeking to dissolve the Cellino & Barnes law firm, the legal sources said.

There’s also a short quote from me in the story coming off of this blog.

And from the NY Post comes a confirmation of sorts from the comments about Barnes wanting the California business and Cellino wanting New York:

Barnes wants to focus on the California end of the business, Cellino wants the East Coast, and the partners simply want a judge to referee the complicated split, [Cellino’s father]  said.

But the scuttlebutt around the Buffalo personal-injury and defense pubs is that Cellino Jr. — a minority partner in the firm’s San Francisco and Los Angeles offices — is feuding over money with Barnes, who has already moved to the West Coast.

This, of course, doesn’t explain why the split isn’t amicable.

 

June 2nd, 2016

A Lawyers’ Listserv Gets SCOTUS Recognition

RogueList

Sign inside the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

It came as a shock to everyone in our informal listserv group that was sworn in on Tuesday to the Supreme Court bar.

When we entered the building, we were asked what group we were from. Ummm, each of us stuttered, a group of trial lawyers from New York organized by Jay Breakstone?

“You guys the Rogues?”

Holy shit! The SCOTUS marshals and clerks knew the jokey name of our informal listserv!? No way!

We were at first startled and flabbergasted, then astounded and amazed. Our little group of 28 New York personal injury lawyers, plaintiffs-side only, walked up the interior stairs of the Court, following those clerks and marshals, who all knew we were “the Rogues,” pointing us in the right direction.

Rogue was the nickname bequeathed upon us 15 years ago, as local legend goes, when we banded together outside the confines and restrictions of any official bar association. A member of the “official” bar association listserv called us rogues for doing our own thing, and as one friend notes, “We took it and ran with it.”

The vast majority of us were solo and small firm practitioners, who simply recognized a need to share information as we litigated against significantly more powerful interests. If we were truly independent we could talk about any issue, and this was a win-win for all participants.

Mostly, this is the type of information that any hyper-local group of niche practitioners would want to share:  Can you believe that decision yesterday in Rogue v. Carrier? What are the skills and temperament of opposing counsel? Does anyone have information on Jane Expert?  Does Judge Jones skew toward the defense? And for god’s sake, it’s “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” not the other way around.

In my first job out of law school, finding and sharing information wasn’t really an issue. Like most folks at medium or large firms I could just poke my head into someone else’s office, or chat at lunch, about a particular issue. Not so, however, for the solo practitioner.

Over the last 200+ years, lawyers have shared information outside their firms in a variety of informal and formal ways — perhaps at taverns over our first hundred years as a nation, and at formal bar association meetings and dead-tree publications over the second hundred.

And now as we soar through our third hundred years, we quickly share things electronically. The more knowledge we have, the better we can help our clients. Previously this information passed slowly, and now it passes instantaneously.

Such listservs exist all over the country, and likely all over the world. And while the existence of such listservs isn’t exactly a secret, the contents of the communications obviously are. If a lawyer wanted to share tips on opposing counsel Leo Drummond, for example, it might be helpful if Drummond didn’t know.

I first wrote about my particular group in 2008, in The Million Dollar Listserv, when knowledge of a change in the law was discussed and I was able to race to the courthouse to beat a filing deadline as a result — to the huge benefit of my client. The next time my group met at a big, informal dinner, I bought the first round of drinks. It was my way of showing appreciation to an extraordinary group of people who were helping each other.

Over time, our group met up both at continuing informal dinners as well as at formal lawyer functions, and we put faces and personalities to the names that were attached to our digital messages. The growth of the group then led to shout-outs at some of those bar functions. But the public discussion of actual details was, and remains today, absolutely verboten.

Many judges soon came to realize that this underground group existed, despite the lack of any address, phone, fees, formal publications or legal standing of any kind.

This change in how legal knowledge is shared was in full effect Tuesday in the Supreme Court of the United States as we saw the name of our informal listserv adorning the conference room door.

But wait. There’s more.

Because we eventually marched in to the courtroom for the motion to be admitted to the bar. Breakstone was called to the lectern. And Chief Justice John Roberts specifically spoke the name of our private little listserv in open court. From his perch on the highest bench in the land.

It’s kinda amazing to see a private listserv mentioned not just in open court, but being mentioned in this particular court.

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg met with us afterward, her first question had to do with the Rogue list name. And Breakstone explained, on behalf of the group, of the need for small practitioners to band together to help level the playing field with the sharing of information.

There isn’t anybody that could have conceived, 15 years ago when the listserv was started via email exchanges, that this would have happened. But it did.

I attribute this to a confluence of events, including not just the advancement of technology but the recognition that all of us can benefit from additional knowledge when trying to represent a client. There is a need to share, there is a technology to do it, and the two met up quite nicely.

Ironically, court-watcher Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate yesterday about Tuesday’s proceedings. From her vantage point in the press gallery the day was a yawner, with the judges appearing bored out of their minds. She wrote in her lede:

Sitting in the press section at the Supreme Court this spring is a lot like sitting on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise when Captain Kirk has been forced to downgrade life support to minimum. Lights seem to flicker gently. Dazed reporters drift down the halls like tumbleweeds. On Tuesday, Justice Samuel Alito didn’t even show up for opinion announcements.

It’s funny how the same day and same events look vastly different when viewed through different prisms. She sees boredom while I see a centurial change in the way that lawyers acquire and share information.

It isn’t enough at this point, to simply tip my hat to my fellow Rogues. What is important, I think, is that each practitioner, especially the small firms in  niche areas, find (or create) that band of brothers and sisters to share your mutual knowledge and experience.

You never know where that need to share information may lead.

 

July 15th, 2015

Professorial Malpractice (Updated)

Professor Franks, via LinkedIn

Professor Franks, via LinkedIn

Monday someone blocked me on Twitter. It’s the first time that has happened to me since I started sporadically using the service in 2009.

Me? Blocked?  What malicious and impertinent crime had I committed?

Apparently, I committed the vulgar, discourteous and insulting crime of asking a law professor for a citation, and then discussing it.  I kid you not.

As I skimmed my Twitter feed upon return back from a delightful vacation, I saw this curious tweet from Professor Mary Anne Franks about the de minimis likelihood of a rape allegation being false:

InfinitesmalNow I’m no student of rape statistics or studies for sure — it isn’t what I do, and it isn’t one of the issues I’ve routinely tackled in the 1,300+ pieces I’ve written here since 2006.

But I was curious about the comment, certainly, since it carried a presumption of guilt, which is deeply at odds with our jurisprudence. And it was also at odds with stories in the popular press about rape accusations that turned out to be either questionable or outright false.

This includes such front page stories as the Duke Lacrosse players scandal, the poorly sourced Rolling Stone article from the University of Virginia for which it apologized (A Rape on Campus), Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz who carried a mattress around campus after claiming she was raped, and the Central Park Jogger case. And, of course, there is the infamous case of the Scottsboro Boys.

But you know what the problem is with all those reports? They are not empirical evidence. While they discuss the facts of those particular cases, this means nothing for the big picture as to whether the incidence of false rape accusations is “infinitesimal,” or common, or somewhere in the vast gray area between.

While I don’t do criminal defense work, I do try civil cases, and I am aware of how stories in the popular press help to shape societal opinions (and, therefore, the jury pool). A classic example from my field is the McDonalds hot coffee case. I can’t remember the last time I picked a jury without discussing it.

The problem is that such stories are, by definition, outliers. If they weren’t outliers, they wouldn’t be on the front page where they then go on to shape public opinion.

Wanting to know the source of Professor Franks’ conclusion, I inquired with a very simple and benign citation request regarding her claim that false accusations of rape were “infinitesimal.” And with that she directed me to a Washington Post article that cited a variety of statistics, from different studies:

Cite?

While I won’t summarize the entire article — since as you will see in a moment that is not the point of this post, and you can read it if you want — the author wrote about one significant study stating that there is “a profound disagreement on what counts as a false allegation.”

Due to the problem of shifting definitions (as well as unreported rapes), you can see by the article that it’s difficult to get a real handle on the extent of the problem. In fact, the very story that Professor Franks cited to me had studies showing  false rape accusations varying between a low of 2% to a high of 45%.

The only thing that seemed to be clear about the statistics is that nothing was clear.

So I noted to Professor Franks that not only wasn’t the word “infinitesimal” part of the story, but that the very citation she gave me seemed to demonstrate otherwise:

DoesntSayThat

 

Two to 45

And she blocked me. For challenging the conclusion she reached from her very own citation. This is academia?

Now where I come from, a lawyer doesn’t make an assertion that can’t be backed up with proof. Evidence is the heart and soul of any case or argument. I get challenged on my proof all the time, and I challenge defendants on theirs. Over the course of the 30 years since I was graduated from law school, I’v become pretty confident that this is the way the system works.

The challenging of proof is what, hopefully, assists the finders of fact (be they juries or judges) to become the proverbial fly on the wall that determines what “actually happened” when one bit of evidence contradicts another.

It’s therefore routine in trials for each side to look at the opening statements of the other, and try to find some fact that they claim wasn’t proved at trial, and then pound away at this, calling it an exaggeration or falsity in an attempt to tarnish the entire case of the other side.

And that is why lawyers speak carefully in making assertions of fact, for otherwise we tarnish not only ourselves, but worse, our clients or causes.

I can’t help but wonder: What happens if a legal adversary challenges an assertion that Professor Franks makes in a motion or appeal? What happens if a judge challenges her cite? Will she stand in the well of the courtroom and try to block the judge?

And what happens when a student challenges a citation that Professor Franks gives in class? Does she block the student? Will she cover her ears and sing?

What kind of lesson does she teach her students by saying that, if a person challenges your citation, you just block them?

This post isn’t about rape. It’s about evidence. And teaching. And lawyering.

I’m reminded by this episode of an experience I had as a newbie blogger, with just months under my belt. Walter Olson at Overlawyered had written something and I posted an opposing view. So what did Olson do? He amended his post to read, And for another view, see Turkewitz. With a link.

This was the exact opposite of blocking. And it brought home to me in a heartbeat what the whole blogging thing was about. It’s about an exchange of ideas, some of which may be critical. Olson and I may butt heads on issues from time to time, but I’m indebted to him for that lesson.

And it was the subject of a post I wrote a few years ago celebrating that very fact (Twittering With the Enemy– A Blogospheric Celebration). Professor Franks would do well to take note.

A last thought. When I was a kid, I remember one of my teachers telling me that the best students were the ones that challenged their teachers with questions. This was the pool of students, he told us, from which he hoped would one day emerge a son-in-law.

Good teachers are happy when students’ minds are buzzing with inquisitiveness.  Good teachers aren’t afraid of the questions. Or the answers. Or of learning something new.

Update (7.16.15) – In exceptionally stark contrast to Professor Franks, 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski had this to say in an article that deals with his ideas (in part) on how to change the jury system:

If my proposals raise controversy and opposition, leading to a spirited debate, I will have achieved my purpose.

Now ain’t that refreshing?

———

Elsewhere, some on point, some tangential:

Professor Franks and the False Dichotomy (Jay WolmanLegal Satyricon, who was also blocked)

The ITIF’s Confusion on Free Speech and Revenge Porn (Scott Greenfield @ Simple Justice)

Professor Twitter and the Problem of the Low False Rape Narrative (Francis Walker @ Data Gone Wild)