Litigators

Last week there appeared a column on this site that denigrated clerkships in the middle of the country. I could not decide if the author was attempting satire, but it seemed to be a straight piece. I would like to offer a counterpoint.

I began my career at Biglaw in New York City. The firm began to have troubles, and I saw the writing on the wall as my class dwindled from 40 to 30 to 20. I then heard from a family friend that a federal judge in Oklahoma City was looking for a clerk to assist with some topics with which I was familiar. I scored an interview, we hit it off, and I moved my wife and new baby to OKC for a year.

Full disclosure: I went to 15 schools before graduating high school, and OKC was the place I called “home.” Many decisions about this move were simple: it allowed us to live near family for a year, which was great support for the baby; my wife was working on her dissertation, so she had time to write; and I had a circle of friends from high school with whom I could reconnect.

Further simplifying the issue was that the government payscale is based solely on experience. How much did I earn, as a law firm associate turned law clerk?

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The mega-firm of Baker & McKenzie has a global footprint, with 70 offices in 42 countries. It’s one of the world’s largest law firms, in terms of both headcount and revenue.

But are Baker’s 70 offices about to become… 69? For weeks, reports have been circulating about the possible demise of the firm’s outpost in San Diego. As you may recall, this little office is home to big drama.

Let’s look at the latest news about Baker in San Diego….

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Tom Wallerstein

This post is dedicated to William A. Rutter, who passed away last week. If you’re not a lawyer in California, you might not recognize the name. But at least in my world, Rutter is the guy who produced the invaluable and ubiquitous Rutter practice guides, covering a wide range of practice areas and procedures.

If you’re not from California, you might be more familiar with other Rutter creations, like the BAR/BRI prep course he founded, or his Gilbert Law Summaries for law students.

My firm, like most firms in California, has a series of Rutter guides on our shelves. And even though we run a virtually paperless office with Lexis, Westlaw, and other electronic research options, I still love my printed Rutter guides. We even have a joke about Rutter. Whenever a colleague questions their ability to handle a particular matter or solve a particular issue, we joke, “I’m sure there’s a Rutter Guide for that.”

The joke has a serious point, namely, that the basics of most practice areas can always be learned. And if it’s easy enough to learn a practice area, why shouldn’t a lawyer forming a solo practice or small firm become a true generalist, handling everything from family law, wills and trusts, civil, criminal, and essentially whatever walks in the door?

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Here’s my thesis: We create rules to hedge against ineptitude, and we thus institutionalize mediocrity.

Here are the examples. First, someone — the Administrative Office of the Courts? God? — creates rules to hedge against incomprehensible judicial opinions, and we thus discourage judges from writing exceptional opinions.

When new federal appellate judges attend what is affectionately called “baby judges’ school,” the judges are told how to write opinions. An opinion should have five parts, the judges are told: An introduction (which does not have to be preceded by a separate heading); a statement of facts; the standard of review; the legal discussion; and a conclusion.

Do we impose these rules because every judicial idea is best expressed in this format? Of course not. These rules impose a basic organizational structure on decisions, so that even the worst appellate decisions will be marginally comprehensible. The rules hedge against ineptitude.

Most judges follow the rules, and society generally benefits; we understand most of what’s written. I suspect that many judges who would be capable of writing better opinions if they were not bound by the rules nonetheless choose to constrain themselves, opting to do as instructed. Society may suffer in those situations, because the opinions are not as well-crafted as they might otherwise be.

A few judges ignore the rules. Whatever your politics, for example, you probably agree that Judge Frank Easterbrook often writes great opinions; he regularly ignores the mandatory structure. (This isn’t a high crime or misdemeanor, so he’s safe.) We don’t complain when Judge Easterbrook strikes out on his own, because readers understand what he’s saying and often delight in how he expresses himself.

On the other hand, if Judge Nobody were to strike out on his own, the law might become a muddle. We try to control that judge by imposing a structure. Bureaucratic rules discourage greatness, but they hedge against ineptitude.

Here’s a second example:

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In the first lawsuit (during the proxy fight), the judge held that certain statements made in proxy materials were false and misleading. That lawsuit settled. In the next lawsuit (the 10b-5 class action), plaintiffs explain that precisely the same statements appeared in an annual report, and it is now settled law that those words are false and misleading. How do you avoid the devastating effect of collateral estoppel in the second case?

I solved that puzzle back in 1990. Now I’ve moved in-house, and I fear that I’ll never solve a similar puzzle again.

Have I lost my creativity? I don’t think so. Does my job still require creativity? Yes — but different kinds of creativity. This column is a requiem to a type of thinking that an in-house job — or, at a minimum, my in-house job — doesn’t seem to permit….

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Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, is available on Amazon, as is his previous book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

It’s hard to conjure up bad stuff to say about clerking. It’s an honor, and an all-expense-paid ticket on an exclusive legal gravy train. If you’re lucky enough to clerk for a federal district or circuit court judge, you can rest assured you’re looking good and feeling good.

You might even shoot the moon and sing with the Supremes. In that case, you’re good to go: You’ll never have to practice actual law again. You can sign up now to teach a seminar on “Law and Interpretive Dance” at Yale or attend sumptuous international human rights conferences hosted by African dictators. Life is good at the top. Imagine the stimulation of interacting one-on-one with the mind of a Clarence Thomas (and acquiring access to his porn collection.) You could be the clerk who builds an ironclad case striking down universal access to healthcare — or witness the day Justice T opens his mouth to speak during oral argument….

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Gerald Ung (left) and Edward DiDonato Jr. (right)

This shouldn’t come as a shock; we predicted it last February, when the criminal case ended in acquittal. But Eddie DiDonato Jr., a former lacrosse star at Villanova and the son of a prominent partner at the Fox Rothschild law firm, has filed a civil lawsuit against Gerald Ung, the Temple Law School student who shot DiDonato in January 2010 in the Old City section of Philadelphia.

Gerald Ung isn’t the only defendant. DiDonato is suing a half dozen other parties, relying on various theories of liability. Let’s think of this as a Torts final exam: Who else might DiDonato be suing besides Ung? What causes of action can you see?

Let’s take a closer look at the lawsuit, filed on behalf of DiDonato by one of Pennsylvania’s leading personal injury lawyers….

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In 2009, Professor Martin H. Redish of Northwestern Law School published a book arguing that class actions are in large part unconstitutional: Wholesale Justice: Constitutional Democracy and the Problem of the Class Action Lawsuit (Stanford Univ. Press 2009). Where is the practicing bar?

I understand that nobody reads law review articles or books published by an academic press. And I wouldn’t condemn any practicing lawyer to reading any issue of a law review from cover to cover. But I don’t think it’s asking too much to insist that lawyers remain gently abreast of the academic literature in their field and deploy new ideas aggressively when scholars propose them. Redish’s book shows why in-house counsel should demand more of their outside lawyers.

This post is a two-fer: I’m going both substantive — by summarizing Redish’s argument about why many class actions are unconstitutional — and pragmatic — by criticizing law firms that ignore ideas springing up in the academy that should be used in litigation. (For me, drafting that two-fer is an unusual trick. As regular readers know, it’s typically hard to find even a single thought tucked into one of my columns.)

What does Redish say about class actions, and how have most law firms been derelict?

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Gregory Berry

As mentioned briefly yesterday, a New York state court judge just dismissed the celebrated lawsuit of Berry v. Kasowitz Benson. As you may recall, a former Kasowitz first-year associate named Gregory Berry, who entered the legal profession after “conquering Silicon Valley,” sued his former firm for over $77 million. In his kitchen sink of a complaint, filed pro se, Berry tossed in some 14 causes of action, including wrongful termination, fraud, and breach of contract.

It appears that Berry’s “superior legal mind” failed to impress Justice Eileen Bransten of New York Supreme Court. Ruling from the bench, she dismissed his entire case, with prejudice.

But that’s not all. Her Honor was displeased when Greg Berry walked out of her courtroom before the hearing was over, while she was still putting her ruling on the record. So later this month, he’ll have to appear before Justice Bransten again and explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt….

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This is not the case for Biglaw partnership (and hasn't been for quite some time).

As mentioned yesterday in Non-Sequiturs, the white-shoe law firm of Milbank Tweed, in a recent press release about its new partnership class, gave a special shout-out to Atara Miller. It identified Miller as “likely the only Orthodox Jewish woman partner at a major Wall Street firm” (emphasis in the original).

The release continued: “Milbank has four other Orthodox partners who cope with the same issues, but each of them has a wife to run the household and children, while Ms. Miller takes on those duties at home.”

A big shot in Biglaw, and a baleboste to boot — that’s nice, very nice. But is it accurate to assert that Miller is unique?

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