The top-tier law firms in this country are great at many things. They can clear cross-border mergers of antitrust and tax issues on one day and secure a multi-million dollar settlement in a billion-document litigation over thousands of pages of overlapping contracts the next. Practicing law at this level requires not just good lawyers, but great lawyers.
That said, with great lawyering can come great arrogance. For example, when a top-flight firm decides to take on a family law matter, what happens next should not surprise anyone: the firm approaches the case with an aloof passive-aggressiveness, as though something that doesn’t involve millions of dollars cannot possibly require their full attention.
And then starts yelling and ignoring the bench.
Then the judge gets peeved….
The facts laid out in this case were pretty straightforward: a guy owed child support. For some unknown reason, Child Services kept screwing up and telling him he owed more than he did. Whenever he asked the court to remedy this, the mother would object to the motion. Did she agree with Child Services that the father was in arrears? Well, she wouldn’t say. So the attorney for the father, Johnnie D. Bond Jr., emailed her lawyer at White & Case:
Please advise if your client will be able to verify any arrears amounts … We don’t care what Ms. Chin says is in arrears, we just need her to file something with the court (sp) saying what amount she believes to be in arrears. Our documents show no arrears. In fact, she has not moved for contempt for missed payments since 2010. But since she is unwilling to vouch for Mr. Whitaker in this regard, we need her to claim whatever amount of arrears she contends via affidavit so that the Court can hold a hearing, take
testimony and verify any arrearage.
Bond received no answer to either this email or another a few weeks later asking the same question. It’s not even a difficult question: “How much does your client want?” How can they not answer that? “I have no idea if I’ve been shorted on child support,” said no mother ever. But making no statement and passing the buck to Child Services could mean that a clerical error results in a windfall. It’s a very passive-aggressive position to take, which is why it absolutely screams Biglaw. “Not my client’s problem” can go a long way when matryoshka-doll entities duke it out in court.
In March, the court called the lawyers in and finally cut through the posturing and ordered them to hash it out in the hallway. White & Case sent Yi Ying, an antitrust associate, and importantly, someone who joined the case midstream. Here’s what happened next, according to the court’s opinion:
Suddenly, one loud voice could be heard yelling in the courtroom foyer. The Court directed the courtroom clerk to step outside and bring into the courtroom the persons involved in the dispute…. Based on the conversation at sidebar, and the Court’s own observations, it was evident that Mr. Ying had been yelling at Mr. Bond. Mr. Ying had also told Mr. Bond that he was not going to speak with him contrary to the specific court directive issued moments earlier.
If that sounds like grounds for civil contempt to you, then you’re in complete agreement with Judge Hiram Puig-Logo. After leveling that threat, the court finally provoked a response:
Mr. Ying admitted at that point that no child support was owed.
While Ying is taking the public heat for being named in the opinion, where were the cooler heads at White & Case who should have said months earlier — before Ying was even involved — that if the client didn’t have any objection to the plaintiff’s motion, then maybe they shouldn’t be objecting to the plaintiff’s motion? Or counseling the associates on the case to actually respond to queries from the other side. It seems as though Ying was put in an awful spot by people above him.
The Defendant incurred $20,259.50 in attorney’s fees and $824.24 in additional expenses after September 24, 2013. These expenses were necessary to address the failure of Plaintiffs counsel to respond three times to what amounted to basic discovery requests, and to engage in dialogue at least two times as directed. Their deliberate evasiveness, reticence and uncooperativeness required Defendant’s counsel to prepare, redact and file various pleadings, and to attend two court hearings. These services were reasonable within the circumstances and their quality produced the result desired. In addition, the behavior of Plaintiffs counsel led to the Defendant incurring unnecessary additional costs as reflected in his travel expenses, copying costs and filing fees.
That may not be a lot to White & Case, but it should serve as a reminder to Biglaw firms everywhere that when they venture out into legal lagoons they rarely visit, the case requires more, not less, vigilance — because even though it’s worth far less money than other matters, there’s a much higher likelihood that the firm could end up in over its head in uncharted waters.
The full opinion is reproduced on the next page….