Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Practice Tip - #1

By Stockton

Don't make your life more miserable than need be.

As a practicing attorney your feelings about the law will vary greatly from day to day. One day, you'll be filled with utter despair, the next, bitter hopelessness. Don't make your life more difficult than it has to be. There are little things you can do to help yourself.

I am a litigator. The population in the three or four surrounding counties is approximately 800,000+ people. If you open up the phone book there seems to be about 750,000 attorneys. This is misleading. I can't speak to other areas of practice but the litigation community is quite small. Six or seven firms (mine included) handle most of the tort defense work. There are three or four major plaintiffs attorneys and a healthy smattering of general practitioners that dabble in personal injury. It does not take long to gain a reputation, good or bad.

I speak not about a reputation for competence, but professional courtesy, which is the subject of Practice Tip #1.

My business is primarily done on paper; discovery, motions etc. I work within time frames for responding to demands and motions. When an adversary calls for an extension of time, I SAY YES, and so should you. You do not want a reputation as a hard ass; hard asses make life unnecessarily difficult for those around them and eventually for themselves.

Yes, you should be tough and competitive, but I am talking about something different. I speak to the day-to-day management of the reams of paper that flow out of, and into, your and other lawyer's (and their staff's) office. Don't be a prick if an adversary wants an extra two weeks to reply to discovery demands that you won't even get around to reviewing for three weeks.

Thus, we come to a tip I learned from a wise old adversary who made a fortune as a plaintiffs attorney and was later elevated to the bench. "Never use a law book when you can use a phone book."

Translation: Many intra-litigation issues can be resolved via a conversation rather than motion practice. If they can't, they can't; but judges and colleagues will soon come to find you a reasonable attorney who does not unnecessarily bombard opposing counsel and the courts with motions before even trying to work it out with the adversary. Picking up the phone can save you time and save the client money. Everyone will be happy.

Everyone is busy; lawyers, secretaries, judges, law clerks and claims representatives. You can make your life a bit easier by being reasonable and professional when an adversary calls for extra time or a favor. I don't even have to ask for more time from some adversaries. The cover letters I receive from these professionals usually reads: "If you need more time, let me know." It takes the pressure off.

Like everything else in law, there are exceptions to this general rule. An adversary may forget a date and fail to submit something. This omission could result in a dismissal of his or her case. If you can't agree to an extension, just say so. In many cases, the judge will not want to dismiss a case on anything other than the merits, and your adversary will probably receive an extension of time from the judge. Then you can say, "I can't stipulate to this but I won't vigorously oppose it." If the omission by the adversary is fatal to his case, then you have to swoop in for the kill. Also, if an attorney has been utterly obnoxious all through the litigation, especially towards you or your client, then go for the jugular. If he's been unbearably obnoxious with you, he's done it to others and no one really cares about extending him courtesies. Plus, it feels good.

I practice in an area where litigation is still a gentlemen/ladies game. If you will be practicing in an area where everything is a battle, where lawyers rarely meet the same adversary or judge twice, these tips may not help you. If you practice in a small or medium size market I think you'll find this tip useful as you progress through your career.

This may sound like mere commonsense. It is. Therefore it is doubly important to reinforce this rule in newer attorneys. Newer attorneys sometimes mistake being obnoxious for being tough. They sometimes get caught up in time-consuming fights that will have absolutely no impact on the ultimate resolution of the matter. Make your life easier and pick up that phone book before you draft that motion.

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